Releasing your authentic voice: top voice coach Jeannette Nelson on working with actors at the National Theatre

Actors working in the theatre today face many challenges: how do you keep your voice sounding fresh and vital, day after day? How do you manage to sound natural in performance while still being audible? How do you adapt to working with radio mics? Jeannette Nelson, Head of Voice at the National Theatre, explains how actors can meet the challenges facing them. Plus, read an extract from her book, The Voice Exercise Book.

Working with people’s voices is both a privilege and a responsibility. The voice is so personal: it expresses who you are and what you think; it tells your story; it responds to your emotional and physical life. For actors, all these things are true and more, because their livelihood, their ability to do the job, depends upon their voice. They need it to be flexible, healthy, strong and reliable.

I’ve been a theatre voice coach for about 30 years and yet I still feel I’m learning the job. As society changes and new technology emerges, my work with actors has to respond to different tastes and different environments. Imagine if theatre actors still sounded like those in the 1940s and 1950s. We wouldn’t find that acceptable at all. The greatest demand for actors today is that audiences, and the actors and directors themselves, want dialogue on stage to sound as natural as it does in film and television. By and large, I believe we do achieve that. But it takes an enormous amount of skill to be authentically modern and yet theatrically clear.

Some directors will decide to use radio microphones to achieve the sound they want. Actors and I have to respond to that and it isn’t as straightforward as it sounds. The actors have to get used to the feeling, the consciousness of wearing a microphone, and then to accept that they might not be entirely in control of the sound of their voices. My advice, unless a director wants something specific, is always that they should use their voice as if they don’t have a microphone. Then there will still be energy in the voice and the language, and the sound operator won’t have to push up the volume too much. If they do have to increase the volume through the mics, there is the danger of their voices coming from the amplifiers, not their mouths. More important for the actor is that by working as if they don’t have mics, they will feel in control of their vocal choices and can play the scenes as they would like.

Over the years working with theatre actors, I have been refining my work. I began by feeling there was so much think about, so many different ways we can work with the voice, but now I know that it can be pretty simple. I find that in the pressurised world of rehearsal room and stage, I need to offer the actors direct, easily accessed ways to help them to respond to the vocal needs of a role, to prepare the voice for performance (with and without radio mics), to keep it in shape, and sometimes to manage a vocal crisis.

This is the work that is in my book, The Voice Exercise Book. I wanted to write for the voice user not the voice teacher and I wanted to share the work that I do at the National Theatre.


The following is an extract from The Voice Exercise Book: A Guide to Healthy and Effective Voice Use by Jeannette Nelson.

What your voice says about you

There is no mystery about the mechanics of the human voice. It is a physical activity, and, like all physical activities, if you want to perform well you have to practise and develop your technique. However, the voice is an expression of self like no other, and as such is subject to inner feelings and outward pressures.

Who you are

Our voice is part of our identity and it carries our history. It tells where we are from through our accent or language, tying us to place and community. That might be very important to us, and we may take pride in the accent and dialect that identifies us with the history of a particular place and group of people.

Our voice is also one of the ways we choose to engage with the world. We may use volume, speaking loudly to show that we are confident and in control, or quietly, making people listen closely. We may use tone to project a particular image of ourselves: maybe caring or careless, firm or ironic. We may use our voice to protect ourselves and hide behind, perhaps by changing our native accent, or pushing or withholding its natural energy. We may also enhance the expression of our gender by using a rather high or low pitch.

Authenticity

If you are unhappy with the way you sound and have tried to change it on your own, you may be surprised to know that people usually realise that something is not quite right. We recognise authenticity when we hear it and mistrust those whose voices don’t quite fit them. I’m sure you have listened to people in public life who you feel are not using their voices honestly or authentically, and you don’t trust them.

The work in my book The Voice Exercise Book: A Guide to Healthy and Effective Voice Use is not about forcing the voice to sound different. It is about getting to know the voice you have and working with it. Actors need to know themselves well, and be comfortable and honest about who they are, before they can transform themselves into other people. They aim to reveal truths in the world, and to do so they have to work from a place of authenticity. Voice training is an essential part of this as it teaches them how to discover and release their true voice. Then they can get to know it well and fully own it.

This is what I hope the book offers. The exercises inside are designed to teach you how to feel the breath and the voice within your own body, and then how to maximise its potential for expression and communication. That doesn’t mean it won’t change. If you work with proper care, of course your voice will change but it will still sound like you. In fact, it may sound more like you than it did before, because you will have released it fully. It will be a sound with more resonance, more range, more flexibility and more honesty.

How you feel

The voice is also a means of expressing emotion, and it is often our first response to the things that life brings us: we laugh and cry, and we make spontaneous expressive noises – oh, ah, mm, argh. Our voice can also reveal how we feel even when we don’t mean it to. We know when a friend is not in their usual state of mind, not necessarily by what they say but by how they sound. Unhappiness and anxiety tend to take the music out of the voice, which in turn can make the speaker try to force energy into it in an attempt to disguise their feelings. Insecurity and fear can lead to physical tensions that create a thin, high, husky or quiet voice.

But when we are happy our bodies relax. We can breathe deeply and freely, so the voice can be comfortable and natural. A natural voice is what we are aiming for in this book: a voice that is clear, resonant, unstrained and easy to listen to. And most important of all, we are aiming for a voice that reflects who we truly are. When working at its best, it will respond to our thinking without effort and with a full range of expression.

How others respond to your voice

The voice can also be something that is judged by others. As children we were often told to be quiet or not to say things. As adults we recognise that some types of accent or speech are more valued than others. These criticisms, if excessive or inappropriate, can lead to vocal difficulties, especially when we need to use our voice in public or professional situations.

If you learn early on that you are supposed to keep quiet, you may come to believe that what you have to say is not important. This can lead to a habit of speaking too fast or too softly, or even to being reluctant to speak at all. If you think your accent or speaking style is unacceptable, it can stop you from breathing adequately for speech. Any criticism of how you speak can lead to holding tension in your jaw, throat or shoulders.

However, a little knowledge and technique can bring about a healthier and more satisfying relationship with your voice. Then the confidence that this creates helps to overcome the external pressures that can make speaking hard. This does not happen instantly: you do have to do the exercises and absorb the technique. But learning to control your voice, owning it and falling in love with it will help you to develop self-confidence. You will find that people will want to listen to you. Think of it as regaining what should be naturally yours.


The above is an extract from The Voice Exercise Book: A Guide to Healthy and Effective Voice Use by Jeannette Nelson, published by National Theatre Publications, and available now from Nick Hern Books.

To buy a copy for £12.99, click here.

Jeannette Nelson is running a one-day workshop at the Actors’ Centre, Fall In Love With Your Voice, on Wednesday 7 June. For more information, and to book a place, visit the Actors’ Centre website.

‘The mistake is to pretend you have all the answers’: Richard Eyre on what makes a good theatre director

What makes a good theatre director? How do you learn to be one? What do you do on the first day of rehearsals? Sir Richard Eyre reflects on the director’s elusive craft in his foreword to a new book, Drama Games for Actors by Thomasina Unsworth…

Most of us have an indecent curiosity about what other people do in private. Sex and tax, for instance: ‘What do you do in bed?’ and ‘How much do you earn?’ are the questions that underlie all profile journalism and most biography. My own particular corner of prurience concerns the working habits of directors: I’m inordinately fascinated by what they are. Directors are not very gregarious creatures, at least among their own kind, and if you were to search for a collective noun for them it would probably be a ‘solitude’. When we do gather together, we’re wary of discussing each other’s work, and warier still of asking how it was achieved. Rehearsals are a private province; no one likes to be observed, so it’s hard to see enough to imitate, even if you have a model to follow.

Directors are often self-effacing, often surprisingly lacking in the gift and appetite for self-promotion, and, in spite of a high estimation of their own importance, are often reluctant to capitalise on it by making public pronouncements on their craft. It’s all the odder therefore that directors occupy such an elevated status in contemporary mythology, often, like conductors, placed somewhere between the maestro and the magus, when in fact they’re more like teachers or doctors. If there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s that it’s better to be more like the pupil or the patient than the teacher or the doctor. The mistake is to pretend that you have all the answers.

Which is one of the reasons that I’m consistently reluctant to recommend my ‘process’ to any director, and suspicious of any young director who asks to be an assistant of mine in order to learn about it. If I chose to rationalise the way I work I suppose it would amount to a ‘process’, but it is so idiosyncratic and personal that I wouldn’t dignify it with that description.

A rehearsal has to be a time when actors can experiment, invent, explore, discuss, dispute, practise and play, and it is the job of a director to create a world – private and secure – where this activity can go on without fear of failure. There is no method that guarantees a good rehearsal. It’s as hard to know why some highly articulate, learned and intelligent directors seem unable to animate a cast of actors, as it is to understand how the same orchestra can be inspired by some conductors but seem commonplace in the hands of others.

Richard Eyre directing Liolà by Luigi Pirandello at the National Theatre in 2013. Photo by Catherine Ashmore.

If you ask me, ‘What do you need to be a director?’ I’d have to say this: you need to be somehow assertive and yet self-effacing, to be dogged and yet pliable, to be demanding and yet supportive. And if this sounds like a prescription for a perfect marriage partner, it’s because directors are ever hopeful of making a successful marriage of actor and character, of text and design, of play and audience, so perhaps, if they look hesitant, doubtful, and diffident, it’s because they know just how difficult it is – as in real life – to make a marriage work.

And if you ask me, ‘How do you learn to be a director?’ I’d recommend a poem called ‘Garden Hints’ by Douglas Dunn, which begins with the line: ‘Only a garden can teach gardening.’ Directing is like that: only working with actors in a rehearsal room can offer a real insight into the craft.

The start of most rehearsals resembles others more than it differs from them. Rehearsals have to begin somewhere – usually it’s a meeting of the cast and a reading of the play. The director stands like a heron, rigid with anxiety, talks a little – or a lot, depending on temperament – and his or her words drift like incense over a group of actors who, regardless of their mutual familiarity, are united only in their nervous anticipation and social unease. It never works to give the actors – who are always numbed to deafness by nerves – a lengthy lecture about the background to the play and its meaning: it doesn’t encourage actors to be made to feel that the director holds all the cards and they hold none.

So how do you start rehearsals? It’s always a problem: how do you get a disparate set of individuals to work as an ensemble within a few days? British actors are good at this, but you still have to find means of mutual familiarisation, ways in which they can legitimately sniff each other out. I change my approach for each production. Sometimes we just sit around a table and I encourage everyone, regardless of experience and size of part, to talk about the play, about their parts, about themselves. Sometimes we do physical and vocal exercises. Sometimes we do improvisations connected with the play. And sometimes we even play games – and many of them are in Thomasina Unsworth’s new book, Drama Games for Actors. In it, Thomasina gives you a mass of invaluable ideas for drama exercises for all ages and all types of actors, amateur or professional. It’s hard to imagine anyone involved in theatre who wouldn’t find it useful.


The above extract is reproduced from Drama Games for Actors by Thomasina Unsworth, out now from Nick Hern Books.

This dip-in, flick-through, quick-fire resource book offers dozens of games to serve as a rich source of ideas and inspiration for all actors – and those teaching or directing them.

To buy your copy with a 20% discount (just £7.99), click here.

Alongside the bestselling Drama Games series, Nick Hern Books also publishes a wide range of titles for aspiring and emerging theatre directors, including So You Want To Be A Theatre Director? by Stephen Unwin, Getting Directions by Russ Hope and The Actor and the Target by Declan Donnellan. All available with a 20% discount from Nick Hern Books.

Sir Richard Eyre is a theatre, opera and film director, and was Artistic Director of the National Theatre from 1988 until 1997. He is the author of several books, including Talking Theatre and What Do I Know?, both published by Nick Hern Books.

Photograph of Richard Eyre by Andrew Hasson. Photograph of Richard Eyre directing Pirandello’s Liolà by Catherine Ashmore.

‘It’s such a joyous play’: four leading actors on playing Shakespeare’s great roles

For his new book Shakespeare On Stage: Volume 2, experienced actor Julian Curry – who himself has appeared in twenty-one of Shakespeare’s plays – spoke to twelve leading colleagues about their experience of participating in landmark Shakespearean productions, each recreating in detail their memorable performance in a major role. Here, read some extracts from the book including Chiwetel Ejiofor on Othello, Zoë Wanamaker on Beatrice, Ian McKellen on Lear, and Fiona Shaw on the Shrew.

Chiwetel Ejiofor on Othello’s feelings towards Desdemona

Chiwetel Ejiofor as Othello; Othello, Donmar Warehouse, 2007, directed by Michael Grandage
(© Donald Cooper/Photostage)

I saw it as absolutely that he fell in love with her. What he describes is exactly what happened. Brabantio invited him, they became friends, and Brabantio was thrilled to have this exotic guy in the house, and pleased for him to tell his stories and impress the children. And in the course of doing so, Othello notices that the girl is extraordinarily interested not only in his stories but in him. He realises that she is falling in love with him. He sees, I suppose, a softness in her gaze that he’s quite unused to. Her gentleness and her beauty are intoxicating to him, and because of this adoration he finds himself falling in love with her. And so there probably isn’t a deep knowledge of each other, as much as a powerful awareness of the emotion they’re both feeling. He is also attracted to her willingness to break through societal constraints. I don’t think there’s any evidence in the text that he considered her to be merely a trophy.

Othello’s never been in love before. He’s shell-shocked by the emotion. He had no idea that one could feel anything like that. He’s been through terrible trauma, including being in the Arab slave trade, and has largely shut down the emotional side of himself, and filtered it into conflict. That’s where he has always felt most alive, as he describes, in the ‘Pride, pomp, and circumstance of glorious war’ [3.3]. He’s not looking for anything to replace that emotion, which is why she completely catches him off-guard by falling in love with him. It’s not something that he expected or even necessarily wanted. But it certainly is the first time he’s experienced it.


Zoë Wanamaker on Beatrice and Benedick’s relationship in Much Ado About Nothing

Zoë Wanamaker as Beatrice; Much Ado About Nothing, National Theatre, 2007, directed by Nicholas Hytner
(© Donald Cooper/Photostage)

At the start, her relationship with Benedick is based on misunderstandings, fear and insecurities. They’re both insecure, I think. Benedick pretending he had all these lovers, Beatrice thinking she could never get married. What’s more, Beatrice is in a very male-dominated society, which she resents and he is part of, so you’d assume they absolutely can’t get on. But the great thing about these characters is how they develop as the plot progresses. When you go into any play you’re looking for a character’s change or revelation, which makes them more true to life and is part of the audience’s satisfaction as well as the actor’s. These two people are changed for the better and the happier as a result of the gulling scenes.

Julian Curry: Do you think she was waiting for him all the time, that she always knew he was the one, if only it could come out right?

Wanamaker: It’s possible.

Or is that a bit soppy?

A little bit, yes, but it’s possible. Of all the people she might have a relationship with, it could only be him. And when it happens, a flower opens. Theirs is a marriage made in heaven because they’re so right, their spirits are so perfectly matched. That’s where Nick Hytner [the director] was so clever: the play is not about young people, it’s about mature people, people who have lived but are looking in the wrong directions. It’s the warmth and the wit of these two people, and the fact that they are misfits who thankfully find each other, that make it such a joyous play.


Ian McKellen on the storm scene in King Lear

Ian McKellen as Lear; King Lear, Royal Shakespeare Company, 2007, directed by Trevor Nunn
(© Donald Cooper/Photostage)

We had real rain. Trevor Nunn [the director] was very insistent on that. Then they weren’t able to light the scene, so the audience could hardly see that it was happening. But we were cold and wet, sometimes literally shaking with cold. Actually it was quite helpful to us to be extremely uncomfortable. I remember saying in rehearsal that we should go out into a storm and I’d take off my clothes to feel what it’s like, and then remember it. But in the end we didn’t need to do that, because we had to endure the real thing on stage.

Julian Curry: What do you think Lear’s doing? Why does he want the storm? Why is he welcoming it, asking for it?

McKellen: When it’s raining, and you’re outside in a real old storm with thunder and lightning, and there’s nowhere to go, you’re simply a victim. You can’t control the rain and tell it to stop. It’s just there. He’s trying to relate the reality of getting cold and wet, and being frightened, with what it felt like when his daughters broke all the conventions of his rule by hurting him, thwarting him. He should have been able to control them, but he couldn’t. And he can’t control the weather. The storm is introducing him to the idea that he is just a man, and an old man at that. He had never thought of himself as just a man: he’s King Lear.


Fiona Shaw on the difficulties of playing Katherine in The Taming of the Shrew

Fiona Shaw as Katherine; The Taming of the Shrew, RSC, 1987, directed by Jonathan Miller
(© Donald Cooper/Photostage)

Katherine’s journey is enormous. The difficulty of playing it is that the transitional beats that you would like to have are not there, so you have to make quantum leaps sometimes.

There are a million things between the beginning and the end of the play. You don’t have anything like Petruchio’s journey, which is dextrous and full of contradiction. She has no soliloquy, so you don’t get to the inside of her mind, which means she remains an object to the audience. Until the end, when she’s very much the subject. But that last speech has to be earned. And it’s a thin-ice fragment of a resolution, which is quite hard to do. You have to be very light of feet to get to it. The middle of the play is perhaps the most tricky part, where she doesn’t speak. That’s when you really need to speak, but she doesn’t. She’s silenced. There is a power in silence too, of course, and the audience can be moved and upset, but they’re not charmed by it in the way they’re charmed by his wit. So it’s a hard part to play, whereas Petruchio is a wonderful part to play. And Katherine is also a hard part to enjoy. Maybe that’s generational, but I don’t know of a Katherine who really enjoys playing it.


The above is taken from Shakespeare On Stage: Volume 2 – Twelve Leading Actors on Twelve Key Roles by Julian Curry.

In the book, twelve leading actors take us behind the scenes of landmark Shakespearean productions, each recreating in detail their memorable performance in a major role. The result is a series of individual masterclasses that will be invaluable for other actors and directors, as well as students of Shakespeare – and fascinating for audiences of the plays.

To get your copy at a 20% discount – no voucher code required  – click here.

‘She has made us all raise our game’: Rufus Norris introduces All Change Please by Lucy Kerbel

Rufus NorrisTonic Theatre founder Lucy Kerbel’s new book, All Change Please: A Practical Guide to Achieving Gender Equality in Theatre, is an eye-opening look at why theatre continues to struggle to reflect the gender balance of the world it seeks to represent – and what can be done to fix that. Here, Rufus Norris, who as Director of the National Theatre has committed to making the organisation gender equal, pays tribute to Lucy, her new book and Tonic’s work, and ponders his own role as a gatekeeper and the responsibilities that brings…

Story has always been the lens through which the human race has understood itself, and the work of the storyteller – though transient – can be seismic in the moment and profound in its historical and political impact. Those storytellers, however, have almost entirely come from just one half of humanity.

‘Achieving gender equality in theatre is a no-brainer,’ says Lucy Kerbel – and in her illuminating new book All Change Please she lays out the ethical, creative, political, commercial, social and artistic arguments for why and how the historical imbalance of voice and practice must be addressed.

Her experience and knowledge as a show-maker from the factory floor roots her insight, guidance and encouragement, making it deeply practical and un-sensational. Consequently, her informed strength is twofold: it empowers action, converting weary frustration or unfocused anger into measurable and long-lasting practice. At the same time it disempowers the denial, driven by a throng of mere details, that has stunted what should be a leading example of brilliant diversity: the theatre.

As someone who railed against the gatekeepers for much of my early career, I now find myself in the privileged but often challenging position of being one. The endless deadlines, crises, triumphs and unexpected clattering obstacles are constant distractions from a simple truth: that the gatekeepers’ main responsibility is to look at why they are letting who they are letting through the gates. The work that the National Theatre have been doing with Tonic Theatre is enhancing our understanding of this with both nuance and vision.

Lucy Kerbel, director of Tonic Theatre and author of All Change Please (photo by Helen Murray)

Lucy Kerbel, director of Tonic and author of All Change Please
(photo by Helen Murray)

In fact, Lucy Kerbel’s work through Tonic has become increasingly pivotal in helping the entire industry, through organisations and individuals, raise its game. As she points out, we are the theatre industry; it is alive in us, and will develop or stagnate under our collective stewardship. So it is timely and invaluable that she has added to that well-researched insight with her book.

In it, she ranges across history, unconscious bias, the inevitable elitism of the freelance path, the multiple ways of taking action and responsibility, self-assessment, even the exit chat at the end of a project, and in doing so breaks down the insurmountable into a staircase of constructive progress.

For the open-minded, Lucy provides both tools and imperatives. For the sceptical – and here I include myself – she calmly and completely punctures the myths both of the theatre-maker as deep-thinking and reconstructed occupier of the moral high ground, and of the arts as the front line of all things visionary. And she reveals, step by step, the deep-rooted self-selection that has underpinned where we find ourselves today.

All Change Please will, I hope, have a breadth of readers – the cynic, the impartial, the supporter, the activist. She answers the cynic, informs the impartial, converts the supporter into an activist and equips them all; not in a rallying cry of anger-fuelled idealism, but in a calm, pragmatic and clear-eyed way. She talks about the ‘what’ coming before the ‘how’ – knowing exactly what you want before trying to illuminate how best to achieve it. What she herself wants is inspiringly clear, and the work of Tonic – and this excellent guide as an aspect of that – is a crucial part of how it will be achieved.

FormattedThe above is taken from the Foreword to All Change Please: A Practical Guide to A Practical Guide to Achieving Gender Equality in Theatre by Lucy Kerbel.

Eye-opening, empowering and inspiring, the book explores why change matters, its benefits – artistic, commercial, ethical and social – and how, with everyone’s help, we can actually achieve it. It also includes provocations to help you consider your current practices and their effects, challenge unconscious biases and identify opportunities for change, plus strategies and tools to help you decide where best to focus your efforts, to convince others why change matters, and to achieve meaningful, lasting success.

To get your copy for just £7.99 (rrp £9.99), visit the NHB website now.

Putting teenagers (and their miraculous brains) centre-stage: Ned Glasier and Professor Sarah-Jayne Blakemore on making Brainstorm

After being inspired by a TED Talk about the workings of the teenage brain, Ned Glasier (Artistic Director of Company Three, previously Islington Community Theatre) and co-writer Emily Lim realised they had the germ of an idea for a play that could be shaped and performed by teenagers themselves. Here, Ned Glasier charts the development process, and explains how the resulting play, Brainstorm, has been designed to be adapted and performed by other youth drama groups. Below, neuroscientist Professor Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, who contributed to the play’s development, reports on the scientific angle.

Ned Glasier, Artistic Director of Company Three: Like so many devised plays, Brainstorm started out as a totally different idea.

In 2012, Emily Lim and I began work on a project exploring the coming of age of a fictional boy in the Egyptian revolution. When this didn’t quite work out, we realised that what we were both really interested in was the moment when people become ‘themselves’.  That led us to an inspiring TED Talk by cognitive neuroscientist Dr Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, about the workings of the teenage brain.

As with all Company Three work, what followed was an in-depth and long-term process, working with more than fifty young people through a series of projects, scratch plays, development processes and residencies.

During our early explorations of the subject, one of our young cast members was having an incredibly difficult relationship with her mum. After an early scratch performance, she told us that her mum had come to see the show, and had immediately gone home and called a family meeting to discuss it.  That was perhaps the first time we knew just how important it was to share what we’d learnt.

Brainstorm performed by Company Three (photo by Richard H. Smith)

Brainstorm performed by Company Three (photo by Richard H. Smith)

So we continued to develop the play. We went on residentials, played hide-and-seek, made limbic system dances and created art installations explaining the pre-frontal cortex. We wrote thousands of lists, recorded hundreds of conversations and spoke for hours with Sarah-Jayne and her then PhD student Dr Kate Mills.

Eventually we were lucky enough to take the play to the Park Theatre, the National Theatre and the BBC.

We discovered that not only had we made a play that helped others understand the teenage brain, but we had developed as a company too.  All our work making theatre with young people has been informed and improved by a better understanding of why teenagers are the way they are.

2_tyrelphan_creditrichardhsmithCompany Three’s work is based on a principle of sharing, and we are so happy to be able to share Brainstorm with schools and other young companies. We know from the parents, teachers and other adults who came to see the show how important it is that adults understand what’s going on in the changing teenage brain. And how empowering it can be for teenagers to be the ones to tell them.

The recently published playtext of Brainstorm is both a record of the show, and a blueprint for making your own production. It’s an invitation to take our work and make it your own – to play with it, adapt it and develop it in new and extraordinary ways.

Above all, it’s an invitation to do what the teenage brain does naturally – to respond, to question, to adapt and to experiment.

We can’t wait to hear what you do with it. Do tell us how you get on. There are lots of ways to get in touch, including Twitter, Instagram or Facebook.


845fdaed59d3cd91f98106165c9b07b610615c5b_1600x1200Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience, UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience: In 2013, I saw a scratch performance of Brainstorm given by twenty-five teenage members of Company Three (then Islington Community Theatre). The group, together with directors Ned Glasier and Emily Lim, had seen my TED Talk on the teenage brain and been inspired to create a play about what was happening inside their heads. Ned and Emily approached me and my former PhD student, Dr Kate Mills, to talk to them about the science of the adolescent brain.

When I went to see the scratch performance, I had no idea what to expect, but from the first scene onwards I was mesmerised by the imaginative interpretation of the science and the brilliant performances by the talented young people. The play was innovative and clever, and incredibly poignant, telling the stories of the complex relationships between the young people and their parents, set within the context of the science of how the adolescent brain develops.

I wanted to get more involved and was delighted that a grant from the Wellcome Trust enabled Kate and me to spend more time with the directors and young people to develop the play. Our first step on this journey was a twenty-minute performance and talk by the young people and myself in front of four thousand people at the Discovering the Future of Medicine event at the Royal Albert Hall in London.

3_michaeladewale_creditrichardhsmithIt is important that we find new ways to communicate our scientific discoveries to young people and the general public, and Brainstorm is a perfect example of this. The impact of the play on its audiences at the Royal Albert Hall, Park Theatre, National Theatre and on BBC iPlayer has been profound and long-lasting. The cast have told Kate and me stories of parents rethinking how they understand and interact with their children as a consequence of learning about brain development from the play. We have heard about headteachers who have seen the play and returned to their schools determined to do things differently.

And we have learned from the experience too. It’s fascinating and important to learn about how the science of the adolescent brain is interpreted by young people themselves. We learn about their experiences, what’s important to them and what they care about, and this gives us ideas for our next experiments.

It has always been important to me that science is accessible and that everyone has a role to play in communicating it, questioning it and sharing it. I hope the published version enables many other young people to have the same experience of self-discovery that the cast of Company Three’s Brainstorm did, and that many more audience members might start to understand the extraordinary potential of the teenage brain.


FormattedBrainstorm by Ned Glasier, Emily Lim and Company Three is out now, published by Nick Hern Books.

This edition contains a series of exercises, resources and activities to help schools, youth-theatre groups and young companies create and perform their own Brainstorm. It also features the complete script of the original production which played at Park Theatre and the National Theatre, London, in 2015.

To buy a copy for just £7.99 (rrp £9.99), visit the Nick Hern Books website now.

Production photographs by Richard H. Smith

Tackling taboo subjects in theatre for young people: Carly Wijs on her play Us/Them

After a sell-out run at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2016 and winning a Fringe First Award, the extraordinary Us/Them opens at the National Theatre on 16 January. An international co-production between BRONKS,  the Brussels-based theatre company for young audiences, and Richard Jordan Productions
with Theatre Royal Plymouth and Big in Belgium, the play focuses on the 2004 Beslan School siege, which ended in the deaths of more than 380 people. But rather than giving a straightforward account of this terrible tragedy, Us/Them explores the entirely individual way children cope with traumatic situations. Here, director and writer Carly Wijs explains how she approached the subject matter, and why she’s convinced no subject should be taboo for children.

When BRONKS asked me if I was interested in creating a performance for them, in 2013, the terrorist attack in a shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya, had just occurred. I had read about it in the newspapers and watched footage of it on television, but I had not discussed it with my then eight-year-old son.

But he had seen it for himself on the news and he came to tell me. The way he talked about the attack was very specific: objective, aloof, with the ability to overlook the emotional implications. He handled the news factually, as a sequence of events, and without having to connect it to a judgement. It was as if the horror for him as an eight-year-old child had a completely different meaning because it was not possible to relate it to his own life. A child, unlike an adult, does not think: ‘That could have been me.’

I started to think about another horrifying act of unspeakable violence – the Beslan school siege of September 2004 – and how this dark episode in history could combine with the thoughts and impressions of children about such acts, to make a piece of theatre for young people. I subsequently managed to persuade Oda Van Neygen, who was at the time artistic director of BRONKS, and to this day I thank her for her courage in allowing me do it.

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Gytha Parmentier and Roman Van Houtven in Us/Them, written and directed by Carly Wijs. Photo by Murdo MacLeod

If you type ‘Beslan’ into Google and look at the pictures, it is riveting. You cannot let go of the horror. The fact that it involves children makes that feeling even stronger. It is an abomination in the extreme. But how can we put such indescribable acts on stage? How can we make something that is totally incomprehensible, understandable? And isn’t it taboo to make a piece of theatre about terrorism, aimed at audiences of children? Ultimately, I do not believe it is taboo – in fact, no subject should be taboo for children. It is just important that you use the right words. Discussing the topic of terrorism with children is a challenge, but it can be done. And must be done.

Why Beslan? Well, the drama took place at a school, and the first day of school is something to which every child can relate. The fact that the terrorists chose that specific day and environment to stage their atrocity reflects a profound perversion – but I did not want to talk about the perversity of it all. That’s just an ongoing debate by adults: why is this happening? A child cannot answer and does not have to answer that question. That is the privilege of being a child.

Whilst doing research, I came across a gripping BBC documentary called Children of Beslan, in which the story of the siege is told by the children who were held hostage (it’s available to watch on YouTube here). These children gave the same factual account of those events as my son had given about the Nairobi attack. Aloof almost. Which, of course, does not mean that these children do not have an enormous trauma to process. Unfortunately, the horrifying implications of what happened to them will probably hit them when they grow up. But the only thing that seemed to count for the children in the documentary was that the story was told as accurately as possible.

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It was because of this documentary that I decided to tell the story entirely from the perspective of the children involved: one boy and one girl. There is a difference between their perspectives, but they both try to be as precise as possible in their accounts of what happened during the three-day siege. This precision sometimes takes the form of a ‘Show and Tell’ presentation, a scientific paper or a maths lesson, like you get in school…

But sometimes the children flee from the horror, straight into the comforting arms of the imagination. In the documentary, a boy fantasised that Harry Potter would arrive wearing his invisibility cloak and kill the terrorists one by one. Others fantasised that they were part of a film and none of this was really happening to them. In the play, the children devise their own endings to the siege that are either extremely happy or extremely sad.

Almost 1,200 people, including 777 children, were held hostage during the siege. Outside the school there must have been several thousand people. And yet, in the news footage, Google searches and documentaries, you keep seeing the same group of about fifty photogenic people. In all of the footage that has survived from those fateful days, it’s always the scenes of greatest desperation and devastation that play on a loop, that come back time and time again. Even though the story – and other stories like it – need no further dramatisation, the media keep pushing that sentimental ‘drama’ button. And we keep watching.

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This manipulation of our feelings, and the fact we allow it to happen, is neither innocent, or inconsequential. If – or when – we are blinded and overwhelmed by emotions, we stop being able to think and reflect and analyse. Our only response becomes ‘Oh my god, this is terrible.’ And yet it is essential that we don’t stop thinking and reflecting and analysing. Only by doing so can we get to the origins of these atrocities – and then, we hope, start to think about preventing them.

As adults, we are conditioned by our overly dramatised perspective, by the media, by ourselves, into black and white thinking: ‘Us’ versus ‘Them’. The refreshing thing about a child’s gaze is that it is not coloured by the need for ‘dramatic interpretation’, because that view of things does not connect to their own life. And if it does connect to their own life, it is tackled through imagination. That is what Us/Them is about.


FormattedUs/Them by Carly Wijs is published by Nick Hern Books. To buy your copy for just £7.99 (RRP £9.99), visit our website here.

Us/Them is at the National Theatre, London, 16 January – 18 February 2017. Tickets available here.

Author photo by Guido de Grefte, production photographs by Murdo MacLeod.

‘A well-kept secret’: the Feldenkrais Method and its powerful potential for actors, by Victoria Worsley

The Feldenkrais Method, named after the distinguished scientist and engineer Dr Moshe Feldenkrais, has been used by performers since being adopted by Peter Brook in the 1970s – but it is only now beginning to gain the recognition it deserves. Tapping into the deep relationship between bodily movement and our ways of thinking, feeling and learning, the Method can revolutionise the way actors think about and use their bodies. Here, acting coach and Feldenkrais practitioner Victoria Worsley – author of a new book on the subject, Feldenkrais for Actors – recalls how she first became aware of the Method, and how it ultimately changed her life…

It took a publisher to recognise that it is time for a book on the Feldenkrais Method – one that contextualises it specifically for actors. The Method has been used by physical theatre performers since director Peter Brook started working with Dr Moshe Feldenkrais in the early seventies. It came to the UK via Monika Pagneux’s teaching in Paris and Garet Newell’s classes at the International Workshop Festival. It found its way into physical theatre and dance, and is beginning to be used by mainstream drama schools, by the RSC and also by a select group of well known film actors. There are quite a number of books about the Method now, but as far as its specific use for actors goes, you can find some great academic writing and a few chapters in some popular books on movement – but, as far as I’m aware, there is not one book devoted to the subject.

And a book really is needed. Drama schools are increasingly curious about the Method, but unless they already have a teacher who knows it well, it’s not so easy for them to fully appreciate what it actually is, its possibilities, how it is different to what they already do and how it might fit with or support their work. Amongst professional actors it is also growing, but the wide-ranging possibilities of the Method are still a fairly well-kept secret. Theatre publisher Nick Hern saw this gap, and asked me to write a book about it. The result, Feldenkrais for Actors, has just been published – and I hope it does the job well enough to be genuinely useful. Of course one book cannot cover it all, and one practitioner’s version is not the whole story, but I hope it will be a good start.

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Monika Pagneux, the influential movement teacher who introduced many UK performers to the Feldenkrais Method

I came across the Method aged seventeen, over thirty years ago. I went straight from school to study with the revered teacher Philippe Gaulier in Paris. I remember asking him in my broken French on the phone if I was too young to work with him, and I remember his inimitable reply: “How would I know? I am not a psychic”. Great teacher that he is, it was the one-and-a-half hours with movement teacher Monika Pagneux before his class that got me through the terror of getting up in front of him in those days. She often called me Gloria by mistake, and made up for it wonderfully: “Ah la gloire, la victoire, c’est toute la meme chose” (“Ah, glory, victory, it’s all the same thing!”). The strange little movements we did in her classes had surprising results. They plugged me in to myself, made me feel connected, able, different in ways I had not experienced before: little pieces of magic. A genius teacher in her own right, Monika said these sequences came from the teachings of Moshe Feldenkrais, who had died that very year.

Moshe Feldenkrais in San Francisco (photograph from Bob Knighton's collection, International Feldenkrais Federation Archive)

Moshe Feldenkrais in San Francisco (photograph from Bob Knighton’s collection, International Feldenkrais Federation Archive)

It was the beginning of a long journey for me with the Method. I was in touch with it in a very on-and-off way while I was acting, but it was always with me. Once experienced, the Feldenkrais Method is not easily forgotten. It had been like waking up to myself and learning to explore in ways that never left me. It coloured how I approached all my acting work, my theatre making, my pieces of movement direction, as well as the way I could be present with myself and in the world. And it shaped my exploration of myself from an emotional point of view as I got older.

Later, in that funny place you find yourself in as a pregnant woman (re-evaluating everything!), I made a radical decision to join the Feldenkrais Professional Practitioner training in Lewes. I had a problematic knee injury, and anyway the Method had started tugging at me with increasing insistence. I wanted to delve more deeply into its secrets and see if I could learn its magic. I was doubly tempted by the discovery of the hands-on version of the Method, which seemed to work miracles with my knee and with all sorts of people, from children to the elderly. Being pregnant, I was tired of repertory theatre, of touring and of filming in odd locations. It was time to stay still. Finally, after four years of truly transformative training, I left acting for my Feldenkrais practice and never looked back.

4-2-10Because of my acting background, I naturally began to test what actors could do with the Method. I have been exploring and experimenting with it in the course of my work at some wonderful drama schools like Oxford, Rose Bruford and Mountview, as well as workshops at the Actors Centre in London, where I’ve worked alongside the theatre-maker, director and teacher John Wright (who has written the Foreword to my book). My adventures in related fields such as barefoot running and Goju Ryu karate, as well as in the domain of the physiology of emotion, have helped me clarify aspects of the work, and my varied practice with people from many different walks of life has thrown light on how the Method relates to performance. Feldenkrais trainer Dr Frank Wildman told me that Moshe thought his work would be most fully expressed through actors, precisely because they needed to address the use of themselves in every way.

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And so we come back to the book. Feldenkrais is far from the only movement-based method that is useful for actors, but it is very rich, still very cutting-edge and, in my experience, highly effective in the way it works. It encompasses a unique and profound understanding of human functioning and of how you are you – and the detail of it is like nothing I have come across elsewhere. It is high time for the Method’s usefulness to be laid out clearly so that actors can recognise its benefits and its immense potential for the work they do. I hope my book will be a good start.


FormattedFeldenkrais for Actors: How to Do Less and Discover More by Victoria Worsley is out now, published by Nick Hern Books.

To buy a copy for just £10.39 (RRP £12.99), visit the Nick Hern Books website here.

For details about Victoria Worsley’s Feldenkrais practice, visit her website www.feldenkraisworks.co.uk. She also runs Feldenkrais workshops at the Actors Centre in London; read her blog piece on the Actors Centre website here.

Illustrations by James Humphries.