Courses for actors

February 3, 2014 | Filed Under Acting, Dubious pearls of wisdom 

“Study, find all the good teachers and study with them, get involved in acting to act, not to be famous or for the money.” – Philip Seymour Hoffman, 1967-2014.

Not as apposite a quotation as I might have liked, as this post is not about courses in acting, but about courses for actors: whether for the acquisition of skills, or casting director workshops, or to expand one’s knowledge base generally. I’m writing about courses today because I did three of them, for various reasons, in the last seven days:

  • I am currently studying stage combat with Rc-Annie every Tuesday, and will be until April when I will (as long as I’m not truly inept) be taking an exam in unarmed stage combat, rapier and dagger, and short sword (17th century fencing, not Roman gladius).
  • On Saturday, I attended a casting director workshop with Gemma Sykes.
  • On Sunday, I attended an acting workshop run by David Westhead, via My Million To One.

Stage Combat

I’m doing stage combat, because despite my scrawny frame and aversion to sports as a child, I’ve always loved being physically active. I try to go climbing whenever I can, I used to fence for my school (until acting got in the way and I was able largely to ditch sports altogether), and even though I don’t have great posture or masterful control of my body, I love stage fights and physical work onstage. I genuinely feel that what holds me back in these areas is a lack of confidence, rather than an innate lack of facility for it. I did a day-long course with Rc-Annie in 2012, looking at firearms handling for actors – everything from the legal implications of guns on shoots/stage, to SWAT tactics for room clearance, to disarming methods that look good on-screen. I liked them a lot, and so they were a natural choice for getting my stage combat skills up to scratch.

Stage fighting is like an accents workshop, or clowning, or improvisation – they’re about the acquisition of skills that enable you to expand your repertoire, and therefore your casting bracket, and therefore employability. I spent 3 months learning archery in 2012, not that it’s yielded any work so far (and I grit my teeth whenever I see someone with a bow on-screen, because half the time they wouldn’t hit a barn aiming like that, etc, etc). I’ve done two courses polishing my Gen Am (general American), which is as good as it’s like to get until I start working on it every day.

But more than learning simply to make yourself more employable (which is a perfectly legitimate aim), you should try to take pleasure in the learning. To be able to do something today that I couldn’t do yesterday fills me with glee. When I was first taught how to kick someone in the bits safely, I was demonstrating it to everyone who’d stand still long enough to listen! I love acquiring a new skill, just as research is my favourite part of writing, or preparing a character. I cannot understand an actor who doesn’t Google every damned thing they don’t understand in a speech or a set of sides; who gets cast in an adaptation or as an historical figure and doesn’t bother learning everything about them that they can; who can even bear to learn the lines without knowing they understand them innately. To be an actor is to get a chance to taste the whole breadth of human experience, to breathe life into the meanest and the mightiest of characters: if you try to do that without bothering to understand how your character came to be the way they are, I believe you will fall far short.

Casting Director Workshop

Full disclosure: I actually did this because I won it in a competition run by Talent Circle (linked, though site seems to be down atm). However, I did pay for a casting workshop with Gemma Sykes last year, so I knew roughly what I was getting; I thought it couldn’t hurt to refresh her memory of me; and also I got to read a role against type, as she had already seen me read a role to type in the past. It was fun – the standard of actors was, in my opinion, higher than it had been last August, I got to exchange business cards with a few people, and show off my actually very solid cockney accent (hard to believe if you’ve only been exposed to my dulcet RP tones).

Actors tend to fall into two camps with casting director workshops. They either argue that a chance to meet a CD is a chance to meet a CD, whether you’re paying for it or not, and you should grab it; or they argue that it’s a lousy state of affairs that one should pay money for the chance to be at the forefront of a CD’s mind on the off-chance that they’ll be casting something you’d be suitable for in the following week or so, and that no other industry in the world expects the cattle to pay for the market. I think there’s merit to both sides of the argument; ultimately, though, I’m a pragmatist, and will take whatever edge I can get.

To a certain extent: like everyone else, I’m pretty tight for cash most months, and can’t afford to spunk £30-40 a time on meeting someone who may well never call me in for a job. That’s why I believe the best thing you can do, if you’re going down the paid course route, is target the CDs you see. Last year, I saw three: Sarah Leung, Dan Edwards and Gemma. I chose these three specifically for the projects they cast: I tend to get looked at for period dramas (‘cos of the voice, the ‘tache and the face, innit): Sarah Leung casts independent and art-house films (most notably Children Of Men), while Dan Edwards and Gemma have had hands in casting Mr Selfridge, Ripper Street, Downton Abbey, Musketeers, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell… the list goes on. Exactly the sort of stuff I would be well-suited to, so if there’s anyone I should get myself in front of, it’s these people.

Once you know what you’re getting from a casting workshop, there’s certainly no point doing random workshops, because you’re not likely to learn anything new after a while. So, if you’re going to take that route, be picky! Don’t go up in front of Irene East if you’re not interested in theatre work; likewise, don’t go up in front of Leoni Kibbey if you’re not interested in ad auditions. Your resources are limited, so marshal them and target them accordingly.

One last note on Dan Edwards’ workshops: he gets everyone up individually to do their audition bit, and coaches them on what to improve, and what to strive for. He then gets everyone up again, and does not pass a word of judgement the second time around: he just sends you a link to a video of all the audition pieces the next day. THAT was eye-opening, and fascinating, and disconcerting, and… if you’re ready to learn honestly from your mistakes, it’s superb. That would have been worth every penny, even if it hadn’t been run by someone casting roles in some of the best UK TV going. If you’re still at the stage of hankering for a taste of what a serious audition is like, I would heartily recommend it.

Acting Workshop

This was a surprise one: an actor friend called Monty Burgess told me about it; I honestly thought it would be two hours of someone sharing their fluffy, rose-tinted reminiscences of a pleasingly cosy career in the bosom of the acting world. It struck me as a fun thing to do, and a chance to meet a few people. Also, coming as it did through the splendid My Million To One project, it did not cost me a bean (beyond the £1 it costs to join MMTO in the first place).

I was deeply wrong. David Westhead got us up on our feet and pushed us through two hours of status exercises, the ultimate object of which was to give us tools for finding clarity and certainty in addressing character when the material isn’t clear, or when the director’s more concerned about his shot composition than what people are actually doing in the scene. The exercises revealed how disparity of status between two characters can create comedy, or reveal hidden tensions; and also how hard it can play a lack of passion about something while still being compelling. It was a great, unexpected pleasure, has given me some excellent ideas for addressing ropey scripts, and ALSO had all the networking benefits I had hoped for.

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To conclude: it’s highly unlikely that you will always be working. Christopher Eccleston apparently went three years without work once. David himself said how he attended the premiere of Mrs Brown in New York, flew home, and signed on at the Hornsey dole office, and did not get a scrap of work for eight months – mere days after being told that he’d just done the film that would get him worldwide exposure. In that time, you can occupy yourself in many ways – you can write, you can slave away saving up money to enable you to go on a barely-paid theatre tour, you can sit despondently and stare at the phone, praying for a call that may never come. Me, I’m going to keep learning. For the future, and for the pleasure.

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