Miranda Harcourt is an award-winning actor, director, writer and acting coach. A graduate of Toi Whakaari and former Head of Acting at the school, she now works as a screen-acting coach all over the world on projects including Bridge to Terabithia (Gabor Csupo), The Lovely Bones (Peter Jackson), Top of the Lake (Jane Campion) Lion and Mary Magdalene (Garth Davis).
Most recently Miranda co-directed feature film The Changeover alongside Stuart McKenzie, who wrote the screenplay from Margaret Mahy’s acclaimed novel.
Amongst those she has coached, Miranda counts Nicole Kidman, Juliette Binoche, Anna Sophia Robb, Josh Hutcherson, Dev Patel as well as many others.
Miranda was at Toi earlier in the year working with the first year actors on “Actor in Relationship” and we talked to her about her approach to this and her work as an acting coach.
How has it been working with the first years over the past couple of weeks?
Really good, I have loved it. I think you go to any acting programme to pass through that culture in order to strengthen yourself for the future as a professional person. When you are working with first year students, they haven’t quite figured out what their future holds, whether they want to be actors or whether they want to be drama students.
You do see that some people are sharp in their focus and others are in doubt. That’s not a value judgement, you just have to take each person for where they are. I use a lot of game structures and a lot of analogies in my work which invite them to go, ‘OK, so what does this mean for me? We are playing this game to open up something about performance, so what is that?’ My job is to offer tools for every individual to discover for him or herself.
So sometimes I work with people who are extremely experienced and sometimes I am working with people who are just starting out. That’s good for me because I have to hold a lot of movement across that spectrum of experience. It makes me stay open.
What were you working with them when working on Actor in Relationship, what was the focus there?
It always changes, I like to devise the workshop according to what the group needs. But on this occasion the focus has been reverse the flow. I am asking them to realise through experience and through watching each other on camera, that it makes a magical difference when you truly play to that other person and relinquish your focus on your own performance. Suddenly it’s like a light goes on inside the performance.
Actors can see that in other people but it’s very difficult to then relinquish your own addiction to text. And your addiction to control, and your addiction to craft rather than spirit in performance.
I talk about the actor’s existential crisis — the actor forgets that he or she brings something unique simply by being. A lot of actors think that all they can offer is their craft but I don’t want to see craft, you know? Craft is useful but it’s only useful when it’s invisible.
You are able to make the awkwardness between two actors disappear using a lot of physical exercises, why do you think these work so well with actors?
For me it’s been a lifelong journey to get out of the intellect and into the body and using childhood games is a very quick way to do that.
Other people achieve this in different ways but I do it by using games in which two people have to solve a problem with each other. Clapping games are just two people who have got a problem to solve together. This works in accessing unselfconsciousness because they are both concentrating not on themselves but on each other and the problem they share. They are returning to the state of being a pre-teen, which is when, sociologically, clapping games are most prevalent.
I am also very interested in chemistry and how the body naturally produces drugs when exposed to different experiences. For example fear creates cortisol and adrenaline whereas oxytocin brings about feelings of contentment, relaxation, trust. All of those behaviours come from physical connections and experiences, they don’t come from saying to yourself “I must relax” or “I must trust the other person”. I ask people to embark on something simple and physical in order to be able to promote those behaviours.
Quantum physics also interests me — the new discoveries that are being made about relationship and the shifts and changes that happen in the space between people. I talk a lot about warming the space between actors and that’s not a metaphor or an analogy, that’s real. The space between people can be warmed and that’s what the camera loves to see.
I guess that’s what my work is about, finding those ways to warm the space — and to do it really fast because I usually work on film sets where time is a luxury! When I am on set I have to achieve a shift or change in less than two minutes, so the tools that I have developed are about going deep quickly and then safely exiting at the other end. I studied Drama Therapy at the Central School of Speech and Drama and many of the therapeutic tools I learnt there have found their way into my work.
And you work with children and teens as well so you must have to gauge what works for them as well?
Yes. For example, I wouldn’t use hug to connect with teenagers because I think it’s too much for them. It’s too challenging. Instead I would ask them to achieve the same outcome by standing back to back. I would still use physical closeness but I would change the nature of that exercise to suit that person, their age and stage.
When I was working in India last year on the film Lion, I learnt a cute little hand shake from the five-year-old playing the lead and I use that every day now as a connecting tool. He only spoke Hindi and I only spoke English but we still had a great connection. Another tool I use is Deaf Sign Language which I learnt for a play many years ago. That was awesomely useful in India!
What are you noticing in the first year actors at this stage in their training?
I think maybe here at Toi the orientation in the first year of study is that you find out what kind of learner you are and in discovering that you are equipped with strategies to move forward. Then you can enter the cut and thrust and difficulties of being in a fast-paced professional environment.
Sometimes actors can make discoveries about themselves in class – and because it is a learning environment those should be valued as discoveries, not judged as mistakes. The Japanese concept Kintsukeroi is key to my work — that the light gets through the broken parts!
We did an exercise yesterday where I sent the actors away at the end of the day with these really brief scenes, like really brief scenes, just a single page in a big font and I was like, “Learn these for tomorrow and we are going to work on these scenes”. I work with verbatim text a lot and so my expectation is that people respect the precision of the text. So if I say “Learn the text” that does not mean “Improvise your way through this scene”. It’s got a structure. My expectation is that people would have come back and learnt the structure.
So, if I find on camera that they haven’t learnt the structure, I’m like, “Right, that’s interesting. You haven’t learnt the structure and that’s ok, maybe that’s a choice or maybe you have a learning issue around reading or understanding the text.” There are all sorts of things that emerge in your first year of drama school that some people aren’t even aware of themselves. Some people discover that they are dyslexic and they never knew that. You don’t find out about yourself, you don’t find out about your relationship with learning, with text, until it’s put to the test. And then the responsibility of the institution is to find a way for the actor to negotiate that.
I’ve said it to these guys before – and I am sure every teacher at Toi Whakaari will say to them – that it may well be that you are an actor as well as being a director or writer or producer. There are lots of different skills that can be uncovered in this learning environment and you have to be very open as a teacher to people who bring different forms of magic and that is a big challenge for teachers. Everyone’s cultural history is so different. Their performance history is so different, their personal experience and desires. It’s so diverse. So you have to be structured but you have to be very open, and that’s a great personal challenge for a teacher.
You have been in this industry for years now as an actor, director, writer and now as an acting coach. What keeps you interested in this work?
Other people’s work. When I talk about reversing the flow, I try to apply that every day. I mean I still act and I really enjoy acting but, even in my acting, I am more interested in the other person’s acting than I am in my own.
And maybe that’s because I have been doing it for so long that I can genuinely feel unconstrained. I don’t care about what I look like, which is a lucky change. I used to when I was young and beautiful, but I am not young and beautiful anymore, so I have found huge freedom in growing older because I have gone, “Great, now it is just about the spirit, it is not about having to look a certain way”. And that is what has kept my interest in my own acting, especially on screen.
But, yeah, reverse the flow for me is being more interested in the other person than you are in yourself, just like a good conversation. It doesn’t matter who I am working with, that’s what I am aiming to enable.
Stuart’s and my film The Changeover stars Timothy Spall, Melanie Lynskey and Lucy Lawless — and also a 5 year old who has never acted before plus a teen newcomer. They all offer their own kind of magic and their own kind of challenge.
I work with Nicole Kidman and soon I am going to be working on a film alongside Rooney Mara and Joaquin Phoenix. But at the same time I am working with teenagers and kids at RATA Studios and trying to facilitate opportunities for them and I am working with first year drama students. They all have the capacity for brilliance in very different ways.
Something I really value and think is very special about the work that I bring, is my history with verbatim text. I always work with verbatim text. It is a great gift especially with young actors, because there is a magic to it. Over the past couple of weeks we have worked both with verbatim text and non-verbatim text and examined the difference. Using precision and then conversely using improvisation, I’ll open up scenes and ask them to bring a verbatim dynamic to scenes that have been created by writers.
Verbatim text is incredibly valuable and useful because it’s the poetry of how real people speak. It’s a great tool for actors to learn how to respect text and characterisation. It’s like, “Wow, somebody really said this and they said it because they really felt it.”
Q&A by Emma Draper (Toi Acting Graduate-2009)
To find out more about Miranda Harcourt visit her website: http://www.mirandaharcourt.co.nz
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