Mental Health Awareness Week (May 13 – 19): Notes from a personal journal

“I wish I could show you when you are lonely or in darkness the astonishing light of your own being”

Hafiz of Shiraz

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It’s 5 am on a Tuesday morning. Early October. I’m sat on a Megabus on my way to London. The bus reeks of alcohol, misery and sweat. The reading light above my head is broken.

I switch on the torch on my phone and take out the notes from my bag. I close my eyes and go through the audition lines in my head. The man sat next to me squirms in his seat and turns away. My heart is beating fast and I have a stomach ache.

I am restless, I am unprepared. I didn’t sleep and I didn’t have much time to think about the character – I worked in the restaurant the whole of yesterday when my agent called and asked if I could do the audition today. It’s for the BBC. I could have said no, but I said yes, immediately, because I do not get called for an audition every day. Especially not for the BBC.

If I am honest with myself there’s a nagging sense of disappointment somewhere deep down. I don’t like the character at all, the script is two-dimentional. She’s an illegal immigrant from Ukraine and I am fed with the fact that I have never seen an East European actress in the British cinema and TV play a doctor, a mother, a lecturer, an artist or just someone who, at least, speaks English well enough – people that exist both in my life and in the UK. My character is desperately clinging to her illegal job to stay in the UK at any price. She is abused by her boyfriend. She has a thick accent and has made no effort to speak the language properly. She is attractive, yet hardworking but also fragile – women from Eastern Europe are, of course, exactly that! Apart from being a generic stereotype the character has neither a personality nor a soul.

It’s not the first time I’m called for a role like this and that’s what bothers me most. It’s a recurrent narrative. I know that my agent only submits me for the roles where an ‘’authentic’ East European actress is needed – they know there’s no point to submit me for the roles which says “any background” because this means White British. This also means that you will only play desperate and starved East European migrants who wait tables, mind children and service the Brits sexually for the rest of your life, says a voice in my head. Your agent can’t even pronounce your name. They can’t even tell which country you’re from. They think you’re Polish because every girl with a foreign accent in Britain is, naturally, from Poland. They don’t….

Shut up, I say to the voice in my head! It’s an opportunity, I say to myself. It’s an opportunity, you cannot be picky…I’m so good at pushing my pride away. I cannot be picky. I am an actor after all.

We’re nearly in London. As I stand up to go to the loo, my stomach is burning, I feel my legs melting, my hands shake. I didn’t have breakfast and I didn’t have dinner as I finished working late last night. I drag myself to the toilet. I look at the mirror. I am exhausted. My skin is pale. You’re ugly, the voice comes back. You are so ugly, just look at you. Who told you you can perform at all? If you were any good, you would have made it ages ago. You would have… Shut up, shut up, shut up! I open the tap and wash my face. I feel the pulse in my temples.

The bus pulls in at Victoria. When I’m descending down the stairs, everything around me starts spinning. I can’t breathe. Suddenly I feel like I’m falling through the clouds. The next thing I can remember is a group of people staring at me from above. Worried faces. A woman is holding my hand, someone else is holding my bag, wallet and phone. Are you OK they ask me. Are you OK echoes in my head.

When I realise what happened, I jump! What time is it, I say? It’s quarter past 8 someone says and stares at me in disbelief. Shit! I have to be at the audition for 9 am. You should go to the hospital, says the woman who was holding my hand. She seems perplexed. I am not.

I do not care that I have just passed out. I can’t miss the audition! Oh, I’m fine, I say, no really, this happens to me all the time, I lie and even manage to fake a smile. No, don’t worry, honestly I’m alright, I say about to run and catch the train. I can’t miss it! I have to be there for 9 am no matter what!

At 9 am, I enter the casting room. I am so anxious and out of breath that I’m feeling sick. So you’re Inga, says a young woman who looks beautiful and rested – unlike me. Igne, I correct her. Oh, yes, Igne, so sorry, I’m so bad with names. Yes, so, our casting director is not in until the afternoon, but I will take a video of you if that’s OK. Sure, I say thinking that I could have just taken a video of myself back in Bristol. It will only take a few minutes – she speaks with the same dry tone as my dentist. Sure. And it does take a few minutes because it’s not even 10 past 9 and I am already leaving the room. Thank you, Inga, she says, have a lovely day! You too I say, my eyes searching for the loo. I know I am going to throw up.

How did the audition go, says my friend – also an actor – whom I agreed to meet for a coffee since I am in London. Yeah, went really well, I say, with as much fake confidence as I can still find in me. I skip the part about passing out at Victoria and the vomiting in the loo which took longer than the actual audition. You look really good, she says to me. Thank you I say and we both know we’re lying. I push the shame away.

On the way back to Bristol, my agent sends me an email saying that I didn’t get the part. I’m sure next time will be lucky, they say. I am, however, not so sure. All I am sure about is that my shift at the restaurant starts at 6 pm and I have to be back in time if I want to pay my rent next week. I close my eyes. The world is full of people and I am so alone.

***

This is an excerpt from my personal journal which I wrote as a reflection on one of the auditions that autumn some years ago. And whilst it is personal I know it is not unique.

If you’re an actor trying to ‘make it’ you might have been where I was. You have probably been on the same Megabus journey as me. You are often exhausted and stressed. The thought of not being good enough is somewhat present in you. Not only when you’re going to perform but also when you’re buying milk, washing your clothes or spending time with the love of your life. Unless you come from a privileged background and financial stability you probably are juggling another three jobs to pay your bills ‘whilst you’re making it happen’. That day job you have is low-paid and does not come with any guarantees like sick pay or maternity leave because that’s the price you pay for flexibility whilst you’re making it happen. You probably smoke or drink too much, you might not move enough and yes, your friends and family wonder when you are going to get a proper job and stop wasting your time. You don’t really talk to anyone about how you really feel. You might often feel lonely and disconnected. Being with people is even more difficult than being alone sometimes. Unless you do get a role and then you feel on top of the whole world again! Until the show ends and you’re back in the same hole again.

Some people expect you to be a little mad. Mental health struggles attribute to your artistic charm. And no one likes people who complain. And if you complain you are not resilient. And if you are not resilient means you’re not good enough. And if you’re not good enough no one will work with you. You have thought to quit it all, you really have many times, but what else would you do? You thought of random jobs or even doing a PhD. A strange mix of shame and hope is holding you back from making such decision. In the meantime, you’re losing confidence and you’re probably losing your mind.

This audition was one of the last ones for me and marked the end of my mainstream acting career which had never even properly begun. I would have probably kept going but I spiralled into a pool of darkness.

In order to pull myself out, I took a full-time office job in a boring accountancy bureau. It was quiet, white and stank of tomato and basil soup. The phone rang once or twice per day – answering calls and shredding confidential papers was all I was hired to do. I was not used to doing nothing. l loathed being unproductive. I knew I failed. I disappointed everyone and, first of all, myself. The office felt like a death sentence to me which I imposed on myself. But soon I learned that where there is a touch of death, there’s also potential for a transformation and change.

I told about my job to a friend. I told her there was nothing to do all day. Why don’t you watch TV series or something? She said. I hate TV series! I responded impulsively. She gave me a weird look. What? She looked puzzled and there was silence between us. Then we  both burst into laughter.

This was the moment of epiphany.

I never watched TV series. I loved low-budget independent cinema. I didn’t give a damn about the BBC or big casting directors. I didn’t even have a TV. It never came to my mind to get a Netflix account or binge watching stuff on Amazon Prime. I would never even sit down on the sofa.

What I really loved was Beckett, Genet, Pirandello, Brecht and Pinter. I spent my life in movement, both dance and sports, and I was never really interested in naturalistic acting. I loved the absurd, the surreal, the grotesque. I grew up reading magical realism books and writing poetry. I loved animals, I was interested in philosophy. So – what the hell did I do in all those auditions in the first place? Suddenly, everything began to make sense. I was walking in the wrong direction.

If you’re an actor going through a difficult time, I would like to share a list of things that helped me and I wish someone had told me when I chose artistic path as profession:

  • Ask yourself what you really want to do. The reason for your unhappiness might be because you’re in the wrong shoes.
  • Do not glamorise your own or someone else’s mental health issues. There’s nothing glamorous in suffering.
  • Take responsibility for your mental health – it is your task to make yourself feel better.
  • Make sure you are eating, drinking water and sleeping enough. Rest is essential to sanity.
  • Know when to take a break – no dream job is worth pursuing if it destroys your health.
  • Equally, do not stagnate. Move on when you can.
  • Speak to someone about how you feel. A family member, friend or a mental health professional will help to put things in perspective.
  • Cut contact with unsupportive friends.
  • Identify what triggers you: this can, apparently, range from a specific person to cherries that irritate your stomach and put you in bad mood. Know your enemies!
  • Move! And do it everyday with no excuse.
  • Do not expect the industry to change, but do not be bitter about it – there is a sea of wonderful people working in the performing arts, and there’s lots of generosity and warmth in it, too.
  • Don’t forget that you’re an active agent who is equally shaping the industry. It’s  also our responsibility to create a working culture which works for you.
  • So, create your own work!
  • If you’re going through a difficult time, hold onto your creativity. Finding inspiration and beauty which only the darkness can hold is one of most precious gifts you can give to yourself.
  • Whatever is happening to you right now, know that you will create again. Creativity may  hibernate or take a different route, shape and form but it will never die.
  • You’re an artist, embrace it and live it fully. 

Good luck and thank you for reading.

Insects Research

The Red Nose Chronicles: Ensemble Clowning

A few weeks ago we finished Devising with the Red Nose Course which had 13 participants and ran for 8 weeks. The course focused on the exploration and development of one’s clown character, leading to the devising element at the end. The selection criteria was simple – the willingness to explore one’s physicality as well as the motivation to work collectively and approach clowning as a tool in the context of performance making (not as therapy/personal development opportunity).

The structure of the course was based on physical improvisation exercises which became more complex as the course progressed. These exercises formed a basic theatrical vocabulary which the group was able to share and use as a foundation during the devising weekend.

Being able to work with the same group for over 8 weeks for me, as a freelance facilitator, really is an invaluable luxury. It gives depth and allows time to build a supportive, yet honest, working environment, it enables the group to bond and take greater risks, it also lays a basis for a common devising language to be developed.

Building a shared theatrical language before the actual devising process is extremely important. If there isn’t an agreement about the fundamental stylistic choice it becomes difficult to put a piece which sticks together coherently. That’s why we dedicated half of the course to the fundamentals of devising – space, rhythm, movement, form – exploring how these aspects can be used as an inspiration when working with the red nose in the context of an ensemble.

I would like to share some my of thoughts with you. Let’s begin with The Red Nose.

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The Red Nose is a complex and powerful tool because it belongs to the world of masks. Jacques Lecoq called it the smallest mask in the world. Like most theatre masks the red nose stretches the performer’s imagination, challenges and expands their physical boundaries by encouraging the performer to leave naturalistic acting in order to enter a poetic, surreal, grotesque and absurd dimension of play.

Playing with any theatre mask the performer is required to master a certain technique. Masks are spacial structures and demand a fully engaged physicality, clear articulation, stamina, spacial awareness and a good control over the performer’s body to be brought to life fully. Putting a mask on one’s face is not enough, the whole body must embody the mask. In a ‘masked’ play timing and space are always heightened, condensed, transposed – they are never mundane.

The red nose is not an exception to this. Even in idiocy there is structure and a set of rules (it’s important to remember that rules also exist to be broken). There’s a wide a range of techniques which help to access the full potential of the clown nose and the skills it cultivates. Unlike most other masks, however, the red nose itself does not imply a dramatic conflict, nor does it suggest a form – it is neutral, expressionless, blank, just a red spot. It is the performer who defines the red nose by ‘filling’ it with their individual resources (the body, emotions, personal rhythms, timing, reactions, etc.) – the combination of these create a comic persona/clown character through which one’s unique presence is revealed to the audience.

The red nose is a mask of extremes, raw emotion and impulse. Whilst it is most often associated with the performer’s ability to make the audience laugh, what is more important, I believe, is the performer’s the ability to play, convey a truthful emotion and connect with the audience, other performers and oneself without interruption. When fully embodied, the red nose is not about gags and giggles – it will take the audience on an emotional roller-coaster, it will surprise us by reflecting our humanity through many of its forms back to us.

Ensemble Clowning

Clowning is art form which fosters the performer’s responsiveness to others.  When the red mask is placed in the context of an ensemble, the performer is able to explore and play with the status of their persona/character. Status is defined by the performers’ reactions to one another – like in real life, we mostly learn about ourselves and our place in the world through our interactions with people. Theatrical status is an important element in developing one’s clown character because it lays a certain structure and  provides depth. This gives the performer limitless opportunities which can be turned into a game at any point. 

In ensemble clowning the level of play becomes even more complex because not only does the performer have to connect to the audience, they also must maintain complicity between themselves.

I love Google’s definition of ‘complicity’:

The fact or condition of being involved with others in an activity that is unlawful or morally wrong.

It’s really spot on!

The ethics of working in an ensemble effectively is such: we must become the best partners in crime, not only we are accomplice in the experience we’re creating for the audience, we also must be at one another’s service at all times. Complicity is a kind of an organic synchronisation between the performers who play together. It’s the performers’ ability to communicate clearly and differentiate between tension and release, both dramatic and physical. It’s also the capacity to give and take, feel when it’s right to follow one’s impulse and stay in the limelight and when it’s time to step out and give the focus to someone else. To be complicit is to stay in touch with one’s vitality and be able to genuinely react to what the partner is offering. Complicity requires an enormous generosity, patience and resilience. Some performers have these qualities naturally and some others have to learn them.

The Importance of Honest Feedback

Any act of creativity always balances on the fine line between rejection and success, dismissal and finding its home. Such is the nature of a creative person’s life which does not come with any guarantees or concessions. As creatives we must have a certain level of resilience and be prepared to embrace the outcome that we/our work might not be liked by everyone. It’s perfectly fine!

In the context of actor training, the red nose is an excellent tool because it guides the performer into and through the realms of vulnerability – a matrix where non-defensiveness, emotional truth and aliveness can be encountered and brought to the surface. It is very important to highlight at this point that by ‘vulnerability’ I do not refer to any emotional state where the performer feels threatened/unsafe or where aspects of  trauma or personal conflict are revisited or, worse, exacerbated (I’m a relentless advocate that this should exclusively be resolved in therapy with a guidance of a qualified professional – this will be a separate blog post). In the context of actor training/performance, vulnerability is a full emotional openness which might be uncomfortable at first, but is later embraced and turned into pleasure to perform.

An honest and constructive feedback is a very important part when facilitating the performer’s pathway to creative freedom and learning process. What I mean by ‘honest’ is not some form of an unnecessarily harsh, disrespectful, useless and arrogant criticism based on a personal opinion on the quality of someone else’s performance. It is important that when the feedback is given it is rooted in the objective aspects of our observation. How was the rhythm of the scene? Did the performer play with the space? Was the performer’s body engaged? Were the performers developing a game or dropping it inconsistency? Was there an emotional truth? Etc. Providing a constructive, yet honest, reflection informs the performer about what the audience/observers have experienced and whether the performer’s intention was communicated efficiently. Building a common theatrical language allows the ensemble to navigate this kind of objectivity because then the feedback remains within the context of a shared language – the parameters and objectives of an exercise remain clear and can be commented on accordingly.

Some facilitators/participants prefer applying ‘only positive feedback’ policy instead. I have always been rather sceptical of it. Whilst this approach has its function and place, I do believe it’s important that in the context of performance training it is used in moderation. Receiving positive feedback on a regular basis may feel really great, but it can also trap the group into a superficial and apologetic niceness which blocks the group’s progress and critical thinking, prevents risk taking and eliminates an opportunity to build resilience. This, overall, does more harm than good.

Giving and receiving honesty is profoundly intertwined with embracing our vulnerability. That is why constructive criticism is invaluable and should not be seen as a threat. Being able to navigate, reconcile with and eventually master one’s vulnerability by transforming it into a creative force is essential for any performer. When the actor allows themselves to not shy away and be fully seen (even when there’s a real or perceived judgement in place) a true bond between the performer and the audience is created – we have to trust the fact that, simply, it could not be otherwise. The performer’s ability to stay present and emotionally open is a gift which we give to the audience. When we are able to be at peace with ourselves, our vulnerability and discomfort, that’s when we really begin. 

Photo: Aaron Davies

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Thank you for reading!

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Upcoming The Red Nose: Theatre Clown Course will take place 15 May – 19 June (6 weeks on Wednesdays, 6.30 – 9.00) at The Desperate Men studio in Bristol.

Bookings: info@bptp-workshops.co.uk

The actor’s presence…We all crave it, mais qu’est-ce que c’est?

Recently, when facilitating a physical theatre workshop for actors someone asked “What does presence, actually, mean?”

Whilst the question seemed simple and obvious at first, a long pause followed. We were slightly surprised by our inability to give a simple response straight away. Then, an interesting discussion developed.

Presence, someone said, was being aware of what’s happening around you. It is the ability to concentrate fully, said someone else. Holding stillness. Taking space. Being OK with doing nothing. Not grabbing the focus. Not grabbing (!) Feeling connected. Not thinking, feeling. Being happy to be on stage. Having the pleasure to perform. Going with the flow whilst staying engaged. Being able to embody the character. Breathing. Not having tension or fear. Being able to dance between the levels of energy in the context of a character. Being attuned. Keeping in the rhythm. Being OK with being seen. Seeing. Being playful. Being open to whatever happens. Being in touch with the body. Embodying fully. Reacting truthfully. Going with an impulse. Being aware of the space around you. Feeling alive. Sharing life. Being generous.

We concluded that, whilst somewhat intangible, actor’s presence belonged to the physical realm, the body. And, as the body, it was also a unique, individual feature. I immediately recalled one of my teachers at Lecoq school saying to me – you can’t perform with a dead body. It was nothing, but true. One cannot be present or radiate with life when the body is, literally or metaphorically, dead.

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The dramatic art is – and always has been – a hugely physical activity. In order to embody a character and convey the world of a specific play and the character(s) who live in that particular world, we move, use our voice, gesture and emotions – the body is our main instrument whilst taking the audience on a journey with us.

When we say “this actor was great” what we are often celebrating is their unique and memorable presence to which we connect. The space vibrates when actors stay truthful, engaged, playful and complicit and share that with us. We are also often mesmerised by those who have mastered the skill of full physical embodiment. Our hearts fill up with joy and admiration when we see an actor performing with the quality of movement/voice/emotional landscape/physicality that belong to the character and not necessarily to themselves. Being able to truthfully embody the beauty and physical life of another being is the essential aspect of the actor’s craft.  When we have an ensemble of actors performing in this way (or the whole creative team creating a production in this state/ethics) we leave the show inspired and full of life because we feel that we have truly travelled.

On the other hand, what happens when we are bored? When we leave a theatre play feeling like we just wasted a few hours of lives? Or even worse, feeling depressed and deadened? Putting our personal likes and dislikes aside, what have we actually experienced then?

In “The Empty Space” Peter Brook discusses a range of aspects characterising what he calls, The Deadly Theatre (if you have not yet read this masterpiece, go and get a copy right now). In Deadly Theatre, Brook highlights, actors may be extremely skilled, the shows may be expensive and programmed at prestigious venues – all this is not a criteria to create a convincing life on stage which grants a meaningful experience for the spectator. When death permeates the production, the audience have a nagging sense that something fell flat, something did not take off, the space didn’t vibrate. When this is the case, the connection between the actors and/or the audience is broken, inconsistent or, worse, non-existent. The cast is not present. No presence equals no life. Boredom and indifference follow.

So, can we actually learn presence or is that a special talent that only a few can master?

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We are all, in fact, born present. As children, we’re full of life. Our first experiences are bodily – through movement, touch and observation we discover the world. But as we mature, we somehow disconnect from that natural state of flow. Some of us are by nature more playful, open, trusting, some others struggle. So, what can be done about that?

Jacques Lecoq was the master in guiding his students onto the journey of embodiment which is essential to the actor’s craft. Tout Bouge (Everything Moves) and We Become What We See are the principles of Lecoq’s pedagogy and research through which he encouraged and inspired his students to observe, experiment with and embody life around them (colours, materials, elements, animals, buildings, furniture, humans – anything you want, in fact) and use these findings as inspiration to create a truthful, lively and imaginative art, not only on stage, but also in film, literature, painting, photography, architecture.

By exercising our imagination, engaging our bodies and experimenting with our physicality we are able to begin the process of embodiment. The more we practice, the more we are consistent in sustaining our presence, concentration and connection whilst creating and performing. Through exercising our emotional palette, widening the range of movement, observing our impulses we arrive at a better understanding of our energy and what, as performers, we communicate to our audience. This, of course, requires discipline and will not happen overnight. However, by stretching our physical boundaries, using our intuition and being curious, we are able to remove obstacles which stand in the way between our minds and performing truthfully, generously, playfully.

More about embodiment in the next blog!

The Playful Body: Physical Theatre Class (Mondays, 8-9.30 PM at Space 238 in Bristol)

£12 (full) £10 concession £40 for 5 sessions and MoveGB

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