Spotlight: A SCREEN ACTING WORKSHOP

NHB has just published A Screen Acting Workshop, an invaluable new resource book by internationally renowned acting coach Mel Churcher, with a Foreword by Oscar-winner Jeremy Irons.

Mel has worked with actors of all backgrounds and experience – from drama school students at the start of their careers to Hollywood stars including Daniel Craig, Angelina Jolie and Keira Knightley. Featuring a series of five practical workshops covering every aspect of acting on screen, the book is accompanied by a unique 90-minute DVD showing all the work in action.

On today’s blog you can watch clips from the DVD, see photos from the official launch at London’s Actors Centre, and read an extract from Jeremy Irons’s Foreword.

Film acting has traditionally, in the UK at least, been rather looked down on as being something that the Americans do and which really doesn’t need the technique of a theatre actor. In England, we’re mainly theatre actors, and film actors have been historically regarded as overpaid and under-talented.

But in reality, film acting can give you a real insight into acting in the theatre because you can’t lie on film whereas you can get away with lying in theatre. In other words, the camera will see you if you are pretending. You have to be. Now, I believe you have to be in the theatre also. You have to have a technique to enlarge that state of ‘being’ so that an audience, whether it’s two hundred or two thousand, can understand what you’re saying and what you’re thinking and what you’re feeling. And you have to be able to transmit that. But in order to do that honestly, you have to be able to be in that moment – with no pretence. And if you come to film and think that you can ‘pretend’ in front of the camera (which you can get away with on stage, and which you see a lot of actors doing) – it doesn’t work.

In life, we recognise the difference between someone pretending to be angry and someone being angry. We can tell whether they really find something funny or if they’re pretending to find something funny. So, if we ‘pretend’ on stage, a perceptive audience sometimes can tell. Well – they can always tell on camera.

So I think film is a real testing ground for actors. You have to find ways to get, very quickly, into your role – to learn the techniques that you need when you’re going to shoot, probably, in short little bites. You have to understand what the scene’s about and what the arc of the scene is, as you would in theatre, but then you have to be able to get immediately into the right bit of that arc for the particular shot that’s being done. These days, people tend to shoot longer takes, shoot wide and use multiple cameras, so things are easier than they were. But you’ve still got to have tricks to make sure that – very fast – you’re ready. You don’t want directors to have to do more than two or three takes. The old days of fourteen or fifteen takes are over.” From Jeremy Irons’s Foreword to A Screen Acting Workshop

Vodpod videos no longer available.

[Photographs by Rob Baker Ashton]

A Screen Acting Workshop is now available for purchase. Click here to order your copy through NHB’s website for £13.99 incl. UK P&P (RRP £14.99, standard international postal rates apply) by quoting ‘BLOG OFFER’ in the Comments field.

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A double-dose of fun: revisiting VERNON GOD LITTLE

Jacket image: Vernon God Little (new edition)

Vernon God Little (new edition) by Tanya Ronder

Playwright Tanya Ronder sheds light on the experience of reworking her 2007 adaptation of Vernon God Little, the Booker Prize-winning novel by DBC Pierre, for the Young Vic’s fortieth anniversary season.

When the idea was proposed of redoing Vernon God Little at the Young Vic, it took precisely one second to be 150% behind the idea. The whole creative team and cast had fallen in love with the project the first time round. As a book it has everything – grotesquely funny characters, an insane but almost believable plot, and a beating heart at the centre of it, born from such depth and emotional intelligence, it’s startling. The politics, the philosophy, the comment on our current world and the sheer, vivid joy of trying to stage it was a theatrical combination which captivated us all.

So where’s the rub? Delivering, of course, the second time around; stepping up to the block, having worked at all those improvements we ‘knew’ needed to happen at the end of the previous run. As at the end of any run, we came away thinking, ‘Ah, now we understand what it needs…’ ha, ha. So, firstly, I set about reducing it by 10 per cent; I used to cringe throughout the whole first act’s last incarnation, knowing there was too much in there, too many characters, too much plot. The task was to reduce the foliage without cutting off the path of any vital sap.

Vernon God Little at Young Vic, 2011

Daniel Cerqueira (left), Joseph Drake (centre) and Nathan Osgood (right) in Vernon God Little. Photograph: Tristram Kenton

Then the major, tonal task of the whole piece was to adjust the balance of satire and tragedy – a line which DBC Pierre treads so breathtakingly well in the book. But, we are in Vernon’s head on the page, with him every step of the way, so the appalling horror and loss which underpins it all is never far from us. Trying to reduce the to-audience stuff (another note to self) but upping the emotional stakes was the key challenge. One of the things we had set out to do in the first incarnation, intended until the last minute, was to have the ghost of Jesus, Vernon’s best friend who has just killed all their classmates, on stage. However, we simply didn’t find the right actor back then, and decided to cut our losses and put him on film instead. This time, we started the hunt earlier, and we weren’t going to give up.

The other thing we wanted to do was to celebrate the musical numbers in it even more. We had Country and Western music threaded throughout, but this time we set out to find an entire cast who could sing, so that we could boost every number almost to the level of a musical. Then I wanted to clean-up all the story arcs, make them more archetypal, firm up the back stories, help the audience pick their way through the glorious chaos of characters and places Vernon bounces through.

Vernon God Little at Young Vic, 2011

Lily James (Taylor) and Joseph Drake (Vernon) in Vernon God Little. Photograph: Johan Persson

Result of all these intentions? I have never been so nervous at any first preview. Despite the beautiful final rehearsal-room run, the bar felt higher than ever. It wasn’t as if we’d cocked it up the first time – what were we doing, unpicking it all? Ugh. That first preview felt, to me, less clear, more confusing, less vivid, than it ever had before! But of course my memory was of a highly evolved show from 2007, when the actors had been pacing it up and finding their lights and moments with the great skill and dexterity which they each brought to it. I had to stand back for a few days and let the team do their extraordinary preview work (as well as a bit of re-writing along the way to help clarity…). Several previews later and press night come and gone, I now feel very proud of the work. I’m as in love with it as I ever was, and when there’s an audience full of youngsters in there, the place rocks. I feel unimaginably lucky to have had the chance all over again to paint this distinct canvas with DBC’s extraordinary words and world.

Vernon God Little is currently playing to March 12th 2011 at the Young Vic, London. To purchase a copy of the new edition script (£9.99) click here.

Five minutes with Bruce Norris – author of CLYBOURNE PARK

jacket image of Clybourne Park

Bruce Norris’s raucously funny and fearlessly shocking racial satire Clybourne Park opened in the West End this week. Since its UK debut at the Royal Court Theatre in 2010, the play has received widespread critical acclaim – hailed as ‘the funniest play of the year’ (Evening Standard), ‘genius’ (Times) and ‘out of this world’ (Independent) – and has already scooped all of the prestigious theatre awards. We tracked down the author in his native USA to ask him a few burning questions, exclusively for the NHB blog…! 

 

Clybourne Park dares to confront the submerged racism of its characters, black as well as white, in a potentially explosive way. Do you think it important to provoke audiences in the theatre as well as make them laugh?

I’m not sure whether or not it’s important, per se, it’s just what I enjoy. I’ve always been argumentative by nature and so anything that might potentially cause a fight in the theatre amuses me, as long as fists aren’t used. I had a friend say to me recently, “you should never say mean things to people because words can hurt as much as a fist.” I asked her if she’d ever been hit by a fist? She said no, so I said then maybe someone should hit you so that you’d have proper basis for your comparison.

How have you found British audiences have reacted to the play? Has there been a notable difference to the reaction in the US?

I think that what’s surprising is that the reactions have been remarkably consistent. I think that that’s because theatre-going audiences in the US and the UK draw upon a similar constituency: Well-educated, privileged and (primarily) white people.  Conservatives also go to the theatre in both places, but they go to see shows like The Lion King or Jersey Boys. Conservatives prefer musicals, (or failing that, Shakespeare) and that’s because they know full well that the creators of the kind of theatre you’d see at the Royal Court are, by and large, liberal – sometimes in the extreme – and they (the conservatives) don’t want to go somewhere only to be preached at by people with different opinions. I don’t blame them; I’d hate to go see a play by some conservative bastard whose opinions I despised. The only problem with all of that is, when there is no political or cultural disagreement in an audience it makes for a rather bland experience where our values are simply reconfirmed by the play that we see.  So I find it interesting to explore what would potentially divide or upset a mono-culturally liberal audience – and liberals, currently, are rather easy to upset, both in the US and UK because we’ve been effectively silenced by a dominant center-right coalition for several decades, and are thus, unsurprisingly, a little edgy.

What are your views on the American model of funding theatre (e.g. private finance/philanthropy), and do you think the British Government is right to encourage the UK’s subsidised arts sector to adopt this model?

That’s a really tricky question. Obviously we theatre people over here in the US are ridiculously jealous of your system and would benefit enormously from having some (less paltry) government subsidy for the Arts. If American theatre actors could make a comparable living to London theatre actors they’d be dancing in the streets.  The problem for me (and this is where I become slightly – oh god, dare I say it? – conservative) is that, in order to advocate for government money to be placed in service of the theatre, I’d have to believe that theatre – including the theatre I create – was some kind of social necessity that justified taking away tax dollars from housing programs or education or health care for those who can’t get it via other means. I’m just not sure theatre is important than those things. Correction: I know it’s not. Of course, others would say but your tax dollars are already going to support unjustified wars…Yes, true. But I don’t think that funding one can contradict the other. I don’t think that theatre promotes political change; I think you’d be hard-pressed to show me a real, concrete example of how it does. Moreover, I think that if you’re looking to theatre to effect political change you’ve chosen the most inefficient means possible. I think theatre reflects and responds to the world we live in, rather than leading it. So, how do you justify its funding at the governmental level?

On the other hand, you’ve got the US model. Here’s an interesting fact: The Chairwoman (or -person) of the Board of Directors at Playwrights Horizons (the theatre where Clybourne Park had its premiere), the woman principally responsible for raising money from various corporate entities to fund the existence of that theatre, is married to…former US Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, formerly a board member of Goldman Sachs, and arguably someone who holds partial responsibility for the mess our economy is currently in (and, it should be noted, a lovely man and a fan of my play). Yikes. How to make sense of that?  Here our economy is in free-fall, jobs lost, houses foreclosed upon, and we in the theatre are expected to somehow respond to all of this while at the same time our very existence is being made possible by the very people who put us into this situation? And so you have an entirely different question:  If the money that goes to pay our bills is drawn from the same coffers that perpetuate policies with which we disagree, how should we respond? Are we content to be jesters for a court of Medicis? Or do we attack them with our savage theatrical thrust (that was sarcasm) with the aim to somehow bring them down? And what if we could? Doesn’t Playwrights Horizons exist as a function of the largesse of the wealthy? Should we be grateful for that, or resentful? If we could somehow, through the mechanism of theatre, foment a liberal economic revolution (more sarcasm) that would somehow level the playing field, and thus redistribute some of that same largesse to some of the less fortunate, such as theatre people…wouldn’t that, then, eliminate Playwrights Horizons altogether, and simply bring us back around to the previous paragraph? I wish I knew the answer, but I don’t.

Clybourne Park is currently playing at the Wyndham’s Theatre, London, to 7 May 2011.

AWARDS: Evening Standard Best Play * Critics’ Circle Best New Play * South Bank Sky Arts Best New Play * NOMINATIONS: Olivier Awards – MasterCard Best New Play

PART 5: Bruntwood Playwriting Competition 2011

image of Andrew Sheridan

Andrew Sheridan receiving his award

Andrew Sheridan is a joint-winner of the 2008 Bruntwood Playwriting Competition for his play Winterlong – ‘a dazzling debutGuardian. Set in Manchester, the play explores what happens when a baby is discarded a few nights before Christmas. Sheridan is also an actor, and has appeared in award-winning TV, film and theatre.

How would you describe your play, Winterlong?

It’s a play that wears its heart on its sleeve. There’s no bullshit with it. It doesn’t pull any punches. It’s direct. It’s like Mancunian people. We’re direct. There’s no flannel.

So a sense of place, of belonging in Manchester is important to you as a writer?

I’m Mancunian. I write with a Mancunian voice. It’s important. It always has been. It comes from a tradition, a history of having to search for beauty in the ugly. It has to be shiny and bold and revolutionary. Full of vibrancy and expectation. It has to speak louder than other voices not because it wants to but because it has to. It doesn’t have a choice.

How have you found the experience of working with the director, Sarah Frankcom, on your play?

Sarah Frankcom is without doubt one of the most important directors working in British theatre. She has such an understanding of me as a writer. She has always believed in my play and the characters that populate it. She has never wavered in her support and vigour to direct my play with truth and honesty and daring. I would trust her with my life.

It must be strange – as an actor – to be watching other actors do the job for a change?

Going from actor to writer is slightly weird – almost like trying to walk again or learning to ride a bike. It really hit me when we started casting really. I suddenly realised that I was on the wrong side of the table, and I was so used to walking into the room and seeing these three people, the casting director, the writer and the director.

And the cast?

Every one of the actors in Winterlong is the best there is. They are quality. End of. They all bring an amazing amount individually and collectively to it. I’m so lucky. They’ve all clicked into that Manchester vibe of thinking regarding the play and how they feel about it. “We’re all doing this and we don’t care if you like it or not. We’re doing it.”

jacket image of WINTERLONG

Winterlong by Andrew Sheridan

How does it feel to have your play staged at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre?

The Exchange is where I saw my first play. The Exchange is where I got my first acting job. The Exchange is the theatre that will premiere my first play. I can’t say how much this building means to me. It creates some of this country’s strongest and most daring theatre and all the people who work there are the best there is. They are all totally sound.

How important has the Bruntwood Playwriting Competition been to you?

I think the Bruntwood is the most important new playwriting competition in this country! You can enter the competition completely anonymously. No one knows who you are. It could be your first play, it could be your fifth play, it doesn’t matter, you will be judged on the merit of what you write and that is what’s so good about the competition.

Bruntwood are doing such a good job really considering the hard times that we’re going through economically in this country and the cuts to the arts. They’re  really maintaining what’s important for new writing theatre. It’s just so important at this time that this competition continues… Well done to Bruntwood for doing it and the Royal Exchange for hosting it!

Winterlong received its world premiere at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester, February 2011. It will later transfer to Soho Theatre, London, opening on 23 February 2011.

Next week: Bruce Norris on his multi-award-winning hit Clybourne Park – now playing in the West End at the Wyndham’s Theatre until May 2011 after a sell-out run at the Royal Court.

PART 4: Bruntwood Playwriting Competition 2011

image of Fiona Peek

Fiona Peek collecting her award

FIONA PEEK…worked for many years as an actress and director in Ireland, before returning to England and completing an MA in Dramatic Writing. Her first full-length play, Salt, was joint-winner of the 2008 Bruntwood Playwriting Competition, and was premiered at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester, in February 2010.

Until you’ve had a play accepted and produced, you can’t really refer to yourself as a ‘writer’.

In 2004 I took a leap, and with no previous writing experience started a 2-year part-time MA in Dramatic Writing at Sussex University. My background was in theatre – performance and a small bit of directing – but for a number of years I’d been doing other things. The MA was a potential route back and, in the course of it, I began writing Salt. It was my first full-length play and to an extent I regarded it as an ‘exercise’ in naturalism (any work I’d attempted up to this point fell into the lyrical/surreal category!). Because it never occurred to me that it might be produced on a real live stage with real live actors, and most significantly, real live stage managers, I didn’t worry overly much about the practicalities of conjuring a 4-course meal every night (which said real live actors would be called upon to eat).

So at the end of the course, I had a difficult-to-produce play, which I knew to be unfinished and no real sense of what to do with it. I sent it out to a couple of the bigger new writing theatres and had positive feedback. But none of them was in a position to take it further.

Jacket for SALT

Salt by Fiona Peek

And that’s where Bruntwood came in. The extraordinary thing about the Bruntwood Prize is that it enables potential to be recognised and developed. What an amazing opportunity – to work closely with the literary team over a period of time to develop the piece to its fullest potential, to have one’s work produced in one of the most highly-respected regional theatres in the country, not to mention the possibility of one’s work actually being published through Nick Hern Books’ close association with the competition.

And then of course there’s the money, which often goes politely unmentioned, but which for me bought the time to pursue more writing avenues. Working at the Royal Exchange was hugely rewarding. Had Salt not been spotted by the Bruntwood team, I could easily still be touting it around – I almost certainly would not currently be writing for the BBC and working on my next play. So on some level, one could say that the Bruntwood Competition turned me into a writer… or at least someone who claims to be one!

Come back tomorrow for the final installment in our week-long Bruntwood Playwriting Competition blog special! Andrew Sheridan reveals why the Bruntwood is the most important new playwriting competition in this country!” – and what it’s been like to go from being an actor to a playwright with his debut play and 2008 joint winner of the prize, Winterlong.

PART 3: Bruntwood Playwriting Competition 2011

Vivienne Franzmann photo, 2008

Vivienne Franzmann receiving her award

VIVIENNE FRANZMANN…was a Drama teacher in London for twelve years. She left teaching in 2009 to pursue writing after winning the 2008 Bruntwood Playwriting Competition for Mogadishu. The play also won the George Devine Award in 2010.

What did it mean to win the Bruntwood Prize? The first thing was that it was a total shock. I never expected to be one of the winners and, it was, and has been, brilliant. My ambition was to write a complete and finished play and be able to type the words ‘The end’. I would often start to write and then get sidetracked by real life/work/food – juggling a full-time career as a busy secondary school teacher with a passion for playwriting is no easy feat! So initially I was just pleased to have completed a whole play. When I was shortlisted in the competition, I allowed myself to imagine what it would be like to win, but never felt it was a real possibility, so I just enjoyed the fantasy of it all. My overwhelming memory of the ceremony was that in the rehearsed reading, the audience laughed at the stuff I thought was funny, which felt great. And then later when they announced my name as one of the winners, my dad, who’s Australian leant over and whispered, “You fucking beauty!”

And then all the hard work and lots of rewriting began…..

Winning has given me the chance to do things I never thought I’d do and be part of an industry that I didn’t think I’d ever be part of – I thought I’d teach for the rest of my life. The Bruntwood is an amazing competition because it’s open to everyone and everyone has an equal chance and the Manchester Royal Exchange is a fantastic place full of talented people who care about new writing and want to find new writers. Being one of the winners gave me the chance to develop my play alongside some great people and really develop my skill as a writer. The prize money gave me time and space to get the play to a place that I wanted it to get to and I enjoyed the whole process. So sometimes it was hard, but mostly it was just bloody great.

Since the award ceremony in 2008, I’ve been commissioned by Clean Break and the Royal Court. I’ve got an agent. I’ve poked my nose tentatively into the world of telly and I won another prize in 2010, the George Devine Award. And I bought a dog and called her Mabel (she’s a fucking beauty!). So, in essence, winning the Bruntwood opened doors to me and took my life in a completely different direction – and it made me a writer.

Book jacket of Mogadishu

Mogadishu by Vivienne Franzmann

Mogadishu received its world premiere at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester, January 2011: ‘the play has urgency and neatly balances rough-tongued adolescent rudeness with adult anxiety’ – Guardian. It will later transfer to the Lyric Hammersmith, London, opening on 3 March 2011.

PART 2: Bruntwood Playwriting Competition 2011

Image of Ben Musgrave (© Marius Macevicious)

Ben Musgrave (© Marius Macevicious)

BEN MUSGRAVE…on winning the inaugural Bruntwood Prize in 2007 for his play Pretend You Have Big Buildings

How has winning the first Bruntwood Prize affected your career as a writer?
A week before the prize announcement, I had given up my job to concentrate on writing full-time. Winning the prize felt like a miraculous validation of this decision. It launched my career as a writer: all of a sudden I had representation, interest, the time to write, and, most importantly, the opportunity to work with some wonderful practitioners towards the production of my play in the Main House of the Royal Exchange. It was really extraordinary. Nick Hern published a playtext of Pretend You Have Big Buildings, and every now and again I’m in a bookshop and see a copy of my play on the shelves, which is a lovely thing. The playtext is also on the syllabus at Westminster University…

Jacket for Pretend You Have Big Buildings

Pretend You Have Big Buildings by Ben Musgrave

What advice would you give to a writer entering the prize this year?
I believe that the real value of a prize like this is that it has the potential to find the best play – on its own terms. Not the most fashionable play, or the play most suitable for a particular theatre, but the best play in its own right. In a sense, my play Pretend You Have Big Buildings, very firmly set in Romford, was entirely inappropriate for a theatre in Manchester, and it had already received a “not one for us” response from a few theatres. But there was something about it, and I think that came through. So the best advice I can give to entrants is to write the play you want to write, not the play you think the theatre wants you to write.

What have you done since winning the prize and what are your plans for the future?
It’s been hard to top winning the Bruntwood Prize! It’s also been hard to write the follow-up to Big Buildings, a play that came easily to me, and which emerged, very suddenly, with its heart and character almost fully revealed. But the big ‘Second Play’ has been slowly emerging – I hope it’ll be ready sometime in 2011. In the meantime, however, I’ve been privileged to write a couple of really interesting plays about science – one about neuroscience, and one about privacy and government databases, and I’m really proud of them both.  Last year I also had my play Exams Are Getting Easier produced at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre – performed by their youth theatre. I’m also working on a play for a really interesting company called Only Connect, and I think I’ve just been commissioned to write a play for Radio 4!