Pushing & Pulling – A Director’s Workshop

Investment in the future has been a theme of 2017 so far for the club. After being forced from our ‘home’ by the closure of the Commemoration Hall we’ve been set the challenge of being more creative than ever – mounting productions in non-theatre venues such as Shakers and The Crucible which will take place in the Town Hall. A very generous grant from the Huntingdon Freemen’s Trust has allowed us to invest in a brand new portable lighting rig which will ensure that we can be seen wherever we perform! We’re now looking ahead to 2018 for venues and plays.

Earlier this year we sponsored committee member Rae to attend the RSC’s Big Backstage Weekend (which you can read about here on our blog) and this week I spent a day at London’s Lyceum Theatre for a directors workshop with Lisa Spirling – artistic director of Theatre 503 in Battersea. The aim of these two ventures was to learn from the professionals – to develop new skills and techniques that we can use to improve our own productions. Rather than go into too much detail here I’ll try instead to give a flavour of the day & hopefully adapt some of it into a future workshop of our own.

The Lyceum Theatre

As we sat in the swanky Ambassador’s Lounge waiting for some late-comers held up on the Tube, Lisa decided to take us through for a quick look into the Lyceum’s stunning auditorium – the home of the long-running ‘The Lion King’. Lisa mentioned two things here that would later resonate during the workshop. The first involved the dreaded subject of blocking – actors who join the cast of The Lion King are subject to what sounds like a human game of chess or Battleship. There are so many moving parts in the show that the stage is divided into a grid system – if an actor stands in A6 as opposed to A5 he may be run over by a scenery truck. Less rigorous blocking methods would be discussed later. Second point on The Lion King – a big part of it’s success was down to it’s theatrical language. The director decided against simply carbon-copying the animated movie onto the stage and instead delivered a piece of total theatre that still plays to packed houses eighteen years on.

Back down to earth. Why were we there? What did we want to get out of this day? We started with some very basic but important considerations – who is your audience? How big is your venue? What’s the size of your cast? From here we moved to choosing a play and once it’s chosen, how do you prepare to direct it? Several readings of the play are essential – an initial reading to discover the story and further readings from the points of view of the characters. Asking questions of the play is crucial – who, what, where, why & how? One of the key things in any play is – does it make you want to find out what happens next??


This discovery of the play continues into the first days of rehearsal with the cast. Rather than just a straightforward table reading, the cast & crew read through the text, fine-combing it for FACTS, OPINIONS & QUESTIONS. This approach ensures that everyone is equally familiar with the script & has an equal understanding of it. During a read through of our current production of Shakers we discovered that our four cast members had no clue who Alan Whicker was – they do now!

Up on our feet we played around with a series of ‘push & pull’ excercises, designed to inject a physical intention into the lines. Lisa explained that dialogue is never just people talking – in every scene there are WANTS and INTENTIONS. (Remember the old adage “what’s my motivation”?)
We continued with a ‘thought through’ reading of a scene. In this, the actors must vocalise the thought that motivates each line and then speak the line. Another approach is an ‘action through’ or ‘tactic through’. This concentrates on the doing words, the actions in a scene that motivate the words. This forensic analysis allows the cast & director to really get under the skin of the text for a greater understanding. As amateur theatre people we may feel that we don’t have the luxury of time for this kind of work but I felt that two rehearsal sessions dissecting the text in this way would pay big dividends later on in the process.

We approached the subject of ‘blocking’ with some caution. It seems to be a real hot potato, both in the amateur & professional worlds. In Nick Hytner’s book ‘Balancing Acts’ he mentions renowned stage actors who were often relieved to work with directors who literally told them where to stand, where to sit and when to speak. Others like to find their own way. Ultimately it’s a case of ‘horses for courses’ – whatever works for the truth of the moment – as a director you must create the best possible environment for the actors to work in.

Lisa Spirling

Lisa mentioned two things that must ALWAYS be choreographed – sexual or romantic scenes (snogging, basically) and stage combat. Those two things are never left to chance. Other tips Lisa mentioned for blocking included putting something interesting on the fourth wall (a mirror, a window…), working actors into diagonal rather than straight lines and something which had never ever occurred to me before – because we are used to reading from left to right on the page, entrances from stage right have more visual impact than stage left. It’s true what they say – every day’s a school day.

For me directing becomes more and more enjoyable the more experience you have of doing it. As you find your style & become more familiar with the rudiments, your confidence grows and with that your imagination has more freedom to be creative. It’s a passion that you never stop learning from and this day was invaluable. Thank you to Lisa Spirling & to Ambassador Theatre Group for the opportunity!

A Day At The Donmar…

HDC’s social calendar normally includes at least one or two excursions to London per year, and the first of these took place last Saturday, when a group of us headed out to attend a two-hour workshop at the Donmar Warehouse, followed by Steve Waters’ new play Limehouse.

Any of the club’s social outings is of course something to be looked forward to, but this occasion particularly stood out for me because of its workshop component. As a group that takes pride in its resolution to maintain a professional approach to our work, this was an opportunity for us to learn directly – and borrow inspiration from – those working in the field of theatre.

If weather can be taken as an augur of what’s to come, then the sunshine and unusually warm temperature (for April) heralded a fantastic day out. Our workshop leader started with a few preliminary ice-breaking exercises aimed at establishing some social rapport between attendees, which served as another reminder of what a communal effort acting really is – without the foundations of mutual cooperation and give-and-take, a performance is sure to suffer. In a professional setting, she explained, such social practices would be a lot more in-depth.

This was followed by some historical background to the occurrences leading up to the subject of Waters’ play; the media-dubbed ‘Gang of Four’ (David Owen, Bill Rodgers, Shirley Williams and Roy Jenkins), and their issuing of the ‘Limehouse Declaration’, which marked the formation, two months later, of the Social Democratic Party in March 1981. Suitably educated on the political atmosphere of early 1980s Britain, we were next divided into groups to experiment with naturalistic and non-naturalistic approaches to acting, which we then transposed onto short sections from Limehouse.

There is a limit to how much can be imparted over the course of just two hours, but I felt that the workshop was adequately broken into sections so as to give us reasonable insight into the approaches used during rehearsals. Their perspective seemed to me to offer an open, experimental method infused with pragmatism, a process in which innovation is pursued, but encouraged to conform to the parameters of the play. While choosing to stage a play unconventionally is something to be admired, there is the potential for such inventiveness to deteriorate into egoistic self-indulgence; my impression of the Donmar Warehouse was that they sought to promote a disciplined and streamlined creative endeavour. What was also striking was the informality of the atmosphere – reflected in their recognition of the necessity to craft an environment which facilitates cast affinity and communal spirit.

Following on from this, we had the production of Limehouse itself, which I thought to be a mentally-energising and thought-provoking play. Performances were very good, especially from Roger Allam (as Roy Jenkins) and Debra Gillett (as Shirley Williams), but I was also impressed with how amusing I found much of it to be. I’d been rather expecting a lofty screed on civic matters, and not being one to overly acquaint myself with political knowledge, I’d been imagining that a fair amount of dialogue would be over my head. That wasn’t the case: whilst certainly providing much to consider intellectually, both in the framework of the 1980s and our current climate, Limehouse is also accessible to those with only a modicum of interest in the affairs of government. The action taking place in a kitchen setting served to further extend the broad appeal of the play; the characters seemed less like politicians – isolated and removed from the public’s general vision of everyday experience – and more like a group of impassioned friends, into whose intimate gathering we were stealing a glimpse.

I think we all came away entertained and having learned a thing or two – and in keeping with our aim of emulating professional, high-quality artists, I expect the club will make use of such experiences in further ventures. In the meantime, we look forward to the next trip out!

by Guest Blogger Michelle Gibson

The Tortured Artist

The tortured artist. It’s a well-known concept that’s become something of a stereotype, and in consequence has perhaps taken on its own mythology. But the idea is so bitterly and touchingly romantic that it’s easy to understand its appeal. Van Gogh may be the poster boy for this vision: the tormented creative who produced great art in spite of – or maybe because of? – his battles with his inner demons.

I’m not someone who thinks that emotional agony is a prerequisite for creativity. Many talented people have made their artistic mark and, in so doing, have suffered no more or no less than the average person. But I think that the notion of the suffering artist is more than just a stereotype, that it’s based on the experiences of many whose interests and inclinations have taken them into creative fields, and that there is an undeniable correlation between depression and the arts.

There’s a passage from J. D. Salinger’s Seymour: An Introduction which describes the artist as an “unmistakably ‘classical’ neurotic, an aberrant who only occasionally, and never deeply, wishes to surrender his aberration…a Sick Man who…gives out terrible cries of pain, as if he would wholeheartedly let go both his art and his soul to experience what passes in other people for wellness.”

That was in 1959. Nearly 60 years later, the subject still holds sway – out of ten job categories in which workers were most likely to report an experience of major depression, the performing arts ranked fifth on the list, with mental health counsellor Deborah Legge stating that “depression is not uncommon to those who are drawn to work in the arts.” A Wikipedia list of public figures diagnosed with major depressive disorder reads at times like a laundry list of actors, musicians, writers and painters. In his autobiography Lucky Man, Michael J. Fox relates that his school drama teacher would make a habit of reminding the cast of every school production, “We are all here because we’re not all there” and goes on to dispel the myth that all performers are brash extroverts. Not so – “Actors don’t become actors because they’re brimming with self-confidence. For those of lucky (or unstable) enough to become professional performers, the uncertainty about who we really are only increases.” The death of Robin Williams in 2014 brought more attention to the propensity of a creatively-endowed individual to go through internal mental struggles.

There are of course many artists who never experience an episode of severe depression, but I believe there is plenty of evidence suggesting that the arts are more closely linked to emotional trauma than many other fields. Why might this be? As is usually the case, the answer can’t be found from any one specific source and is most likely contingent upon varying factors that may raise themselves. Employment in the arts is something that is often unsteady and unstable, with no guarantee of another job following the next one. This unreliability of consistent work and income is bound to take its toll. There’s also the question of whether many actors, musicians and writers are highly sensitive people, whose emotions may exist in a more heightened state than what is ‘normal’.

What about the very act of putting yourself and your art in display? By doing so, you not only invite praise, but criticism. For every lauded film or theatrical performance, there will also be a more scathing take on the actor’s talents. And for many artists, whom I suspect may view their work as a congenital part of who they are as a person, an attack on the quality of their output may be construed as an attack on the quality of themselves.

We could also consider that by their very nature, the arts may be an emotional repository for people who are unhappy to begin with. I find acting to be a means of great therapy, a sentiment which I’ve often heard others express. As a channel for one’s personal sensitivities – and an escape from the common experience of ‘real life’ – I think it’s second to none. Acting affords the performer the opportunity to establish contact with something distant and impalpable, and seemingly with neither thought nor effort, our consciousness is swept into a world beyond the five senses, a world in which perhaps the artist feels at their most free.

So the vision of the tortured artist will undoubtedly continue to permeate our cultural philosophy. There is too much truth behind it, and it’s too beloved as an attractively painful emblem, I think, for it to be abandoned. I think acting and other arts offer a psychological lifeline for those of a depressive disposition – another reason why the importance of the arts in society should not be so readily dismissed. It’s one of those tragically ironic paradoxes that the creation of something beautiful – art – should so often go hand in hand with the most ugly kind of mental suffering, erhaps best summarised in this short statement:
“Beauty will be CONVULSIVE or will not be at all”
Nadja – Andre Breton

by Guest Blogger Michelle Gibson 

‘Outside Edge’

Upon learning of Bedford Drama Company’s upcoming performance of ‘Outside Edge’, it seemed only fitting that the show be added to our calendar of social events – especially as this is the play that will be rounding off our own 2016 season. So yesterday evening, a group of us piled into our cars and spent an enjoyable couple of hours watching Richard Harris’s famous comedy.

‘Outside Edge’ takes place in a single afternoon and tells the story of a cricket team’s attempts to win their game whilst dealing with the mountain of spousal issues which have all reared their heads. Team captain Roger’s seemingly ideal marriage to Miriam is gradually exposed as a sham, as he callously berates her throughout, and is ultimately forced to come clean about his infidelity. Next we have Bob, still tied to the apron strings of his ex-wife and unable to refuse her demands that he do odd jobs for her – much to his current wife Ginnie’s displeasure. Of the entire crew, it is perhaps only Maggie and Kevin that have a stable relationship – which, while tempestuous, is genuinely affectionate. Well-endowed in the physiological department, Maggie also maintains a rather ‘large’ personality, often fulfilling the role of mother as well as wife as she fusses over her beloved “Little Kev.” The cast is padded out by Dennis, a sleazy car salesman and Alex, a snobbish lawyer whose total disinterest in his timid girlfriend leads to her having a fit of hysterics.

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Not having seen the play before, I was impressed by the snappy dialogue, and amused by the misunderstandings and ridiculousness that are the necessary components of any farce. Moments such as Ginnie’s confusion at the solicitousness of Roger – led to believe that she’s in the grip of a nasty bout of flu – and the rivalries between Bob, Dennis and Alex all tie in to add to the charm of the piece. In terms of acting, I was particularly taken with the performances of Miriam, Ginnie and Maggie. Watching Miriam struggling to reign in her rage as she transforms from dutiful, organised housewife to the stressed and harassed verbal punchbag of her husband, was for me, one of the funniest threads of the play. Ginnie’s sly allusions to Roger’s unfaithfulness were also amusing, along with Maggie’s bold Cockney exterior.

Having finally seen the play for myself, I’m looking forward even more to seeing what we ourselves will do with it – and seeing as our party last night included both our upcoming director and Artistic Director, I’d imagine that they’re already turning over a few ideas in their heads. So keep us in mind come November!

By Michelle Gibson, our regular Guest Blogger