Heather Timms is the Director of Actor Training at Toi Whakaari. She has worked as a director, theatre maker and educator nationally and internationally (including UK, Africa, Australia and Asia). Heather recently trained with Joan Scheckel, the prolific US filmmaker, acting coach and creator of The Technique. Heather brought her work with Scheckel into her sessions with the Toi Whakaari first year actors while they worked on a block called Actor in Action. This is the second of four blocks across the first semester of Year 1 looking at foundational actor craft. We asked Heather about this work and her approach to actor training.
When you talk about ‘Actor Craft’ what do you mean by that?
Classic, massive question. I think it means many things really. I think it’s when an actor is in a position to repeatedly bring strong visceral performance, under lots of pressure, in whatever environments they’re working in. An actor with craft is able to do that. It’s a life long journey, like any craft I suppose. It requires an actor to be fluid, responsive, in the ‘now’, and to also work layers. There’s the layer of instinctual freedom, wildness or whatever language you use – the ability to be in their animal, to have their game, we want those things alive and well in the actor. That’s the work Brita’s beginning with them in Actor & Instinct. There’s the layer of conscious craft, of listening, of attention to the voice, the body and an ability to approach text that is not your own words. Then there’s the layer related to their ability to read the environment that they’re in and work with others, so they are always working with awareness – What’s my role? Who are the people? What’s needed for me in this moment? These are the kinds of actors you want working with you.
In the training we’re working to attend to these layers. I have just been with the first year actors in Actor in Action and it’s the beginning of their approach to text – What do I do when these words are not my own? Because they have so much freedom and pleasure and life when they are with their own words, their own worlds, but when it comes to someone else’s it can get pretty dead. They’re trying so hard to be good, and this is when deep craft, specific craft, is needed. Often I think that when young people come to Toi Whakaari, the education they have had has meant that they are trying so hard to get it right and thinking ‘I need to understand before I can do’. We really have to turn that thinking around for our actors. Get a balance. It’s not about getting them out of their heads but getting them into their bodies and building up their instinctual and embodied practice. It’s the doing that builds the understanding but that means risking, getting messy, failing, trying again, sometimes winning but mostly just really giving it a go. It means committing and warming up to learning, to training, rather than proving something. That’s really hard, all the time, but also lovely to see the liberating effect that it has. The ‘doing’ lets the understanding arrive from the actor’s body smarts.
So, in Actor in Action I’m working to lay down some foundations to how they can approach text. At the beginning a big question for me is how to get them engaging and reading a text like an actor not a student. How do you hunt for the juice that will feed you? What other resources do you need to collect? Things that will affect you imaginatively, in your body. Like one of the actors choosing to wear a piece of silk under her top and across her skin because it changed the way she moved and touched her body.
We talk about world, we talk about character, we talk about stakes, we talk about beats and actions. But all of that is for nothing unless they understand how that can be embodied. Joan’s (Scheckel) work has such strong process for connecting everything into an embodied investigation so you can tap into your own source.
In ‘Actor in Action’ I have been working on Angels in America with the first year actors and we asked, how do you look at this, these words being like a little thread on top of the massive inner life of the character (and it’s the inner life that we want to experience and feel as an audience) so how does an actor go there? I’m encouraging them to feel into and listen to the text like musicians – its music, and its rhythms. Every character holds a note; every scene has its own rhythmical journey. Joan would talk about the rhythm being more powerful than the dialogue, that it is rhythm that’s the ace card not subtext.
In my experience, working with ‘action’ can get very conceptual, but the way that Joan works with action is that she’s working with developing a specific and visceral literacy of words, words that you can both do and feel, action words that are investigatable. A picture of this is an actor on the floor physically exploring the qualities of the word, say, “confide”. What does that really look and feel like? The actor finds that it has a rhythm, a temperature, it demands certain amounts of scale or space. And they see that there are so many tactics and games in the action and this emerges out of the physical work, out of instinct.
Also we’re working with action words that are connected to the emotional logic of the character. We are what we do and how we do it. We’re really hunting for the types of actions that’ll allow a character to be revealed so we’ll spend time exploring what these might be, because it isn’t a conceptual process. I’ll spend time with the actors in, I suppose you could call it, long form improvisations that I coach, so they can start to play with and feel into the physical presence of the character. What part of the foot holds their weight? Do they roll in or out? What does that do to their spine? Where’s the tension held? Where’s the chin? How open’s the chest? What’s their relationship to space and how does their energy move? What might that look like in the different social roles their character plays? You know, like, big sister, little sister, outsider, coach, queen bee.
In this way they can start to build bridges between their text analysis work and how that would live in the actor’s body and then the kinds of actions that this character would play. I am passionate about that; it’s a physical process, not an academic process.
Do you have any other examples of some of the actions that you were working with on the floor with them?
I think of what we were just doing the other day with Frank T J Mackie in the screenplay Magnolia, so the first action that we came to for the first big beat of the “Seduce and Destroy” seminar was ‘glorify’, so we physically investigated ‘glorify’ – the actor using their body in space to investigate the qualities of ‘glorify’, the temperatures, its rhythms, its relationship to space, scale, where the energy was sitting in the body. What is it to glorify in your fingers? What is it up your spine? Down your thighs? In your arms? To the wall? To God? Then you are doing it to a force, God, so it’s much more of the big, elemental kind of energy. This is hard to put into words, but it releases scale, connects body to meaning, opens up instinctual insights. This is part of Joan’s technique: action play. Then before the actor is ready, you’re laying the text of the beat on top. And you can see the actors start to understand that these action words are like divining rods down into their instinctual inner life. When you arrive at the right action then they know it and then they can plug into it and then they can play with it and ride the charge. And after working in this way they have more of an understanding that the inner life is a huge space and that those words in the text are only a very small thread in terms of what is happening in the scene. Because so often they just come in and play the words and in good writing that’s not what the scene’s about.
Also a lot of action play is really at scale. It’s not about naturalism, because they’ve got to be able to play it at scale to be able to feel it, in order to play it. So that work on ‘glorify’ was 45 minutes of working on the floor and Joan would often say, the cost of working in this way is energy. You know at this point it’s not a sitting around talking process, it’s a physical process and it demands all of you. And through it you discover so many other things, too, about the character, their relationship to the world, themselves. Once it’s been felt in the body, the body remembers so then they can go, hold it, work with it, under pressure.
And being able to work with craft also means not being dependent on the person who’s coaching you. How can they do it independently in the way that works best for them? That’s really important in my practice – to see how I can provide environments and share these craft tools to empower them so they can go away and take it with them. At the end of the Actor in Action block I thought, yes, this is enough now. Now they need to go and make sense of it themselves and see what drops and what doesn’t drop, away from me in the room.
What sort of changes have you seen in the first year actors over the first semester since working on these blocks? What’s becoming clearer to them, do you think?
I would hope that by this point in their training, that having worked with Brita (McVeigh) and now myself, and inside all the other parts of the regular training, that they are starting to be willing to bring more of themselves into the school and into class and that they would have beginning tools for approaching text and going for truth (because that’s such an overused word, what does that even mean?) How do you make it yours? Not someone else’s.
The challenge now is discipline and the work required. Because to actually build this craft takes lots and lots of practice. It’s training and I think that’s an ongoing challenge that we have with young actors because you don’t get it in a ‘block’, there’s no quick fix. It’s a combination of challenging them and being gentle, because we are meeting them at a beginning, perhaps a beginning of a lifetime of practice if they continue to go on and practice as actors. We are consciously trying to make apparent the discipline that is required. It’s practice. It’s all very well to come in and do these awesome blocks of work but it will disappear unless you independently tutū away and that’s why Independent Practice starts in first year. Once you go into a rehearsal space with your two mates to workshop on your own, you realise all the things you don’t know about it and then you get really curious about all the things you need to learn.
It seems that a lot of the work over the first semester is about getting the actors to listen to – and understand – how to work from a more instinctual place. How can we practice this and why do you think this can be a challenging thing for actors?
I really believe that it’s in all of us, that instinctual life is all there, but I think it’s connected to the predominant ways in which people learn. It’s just the way life is at the moment. It is often counter to being and living in an instinctual way and being connected to feeling. So I think that for the majority of actors who come in at the beginning of their training it’s buried. I don’t think it’s something that you learn, I don’t think you teach instinct, but I think it’s our job to create the environments for that to be invited to come out and play and to make that invitation attractive enough so that those really precious parts of ourselves can feel safe and free to come and surprise and delight us. That’s a beautiful thing – to invite your instincts back. And the more it comes back, the more it becomes a thing you can wield when and how you want but the beginnings of it is tentative and we need to go slowly and to encourage it.
I think for me, this is when it comes back to an embodied practice, not just about the ideas of actor training. Working with your instincts is not just something that you whip up. Once you are in your animal, and you feel its power and strength, then you are prepared to live there more. And of course there are always a couple of actors who come to the school and they are already plugged into their instinctual life, they’re living more on their own terms, but for most of them it’s a journey. And also there’s a group of actors that are very plugged in, outside school, in their own worlds, and then they come to training, or ‘school’ and feel they need to do something else – be good, be contained, be someone else. Inside a class of actors there’s so much for them to learn from each other.
A big question for me is how do you bring your difference and how do you make it so they see that difference as a useful thing? I’m seeing more and more that actors are waking up to that and saying “Oh yeah, I am different to that person and that’s a good thing.” I think so much of the craft of the actor is to dance between the personal and the imagined, so it’s vital that we’re making space, giving more and more permission, for the actors to bring their own voice and I think that’s challenging for lots of them. Who am I and why is that even legitimate? Last week one of the actors was working with this character and as they were going more deeply into their understanding of this person as a really living, breathing entity, they said “It’s just making me more conscious of myself as well, because I am looking at and feeling another.”
Q&A by Emma Draper (Toi Acting Graduate-2009)
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