Thomasina Unsworth: ‘peeling off the labels’ – why I wrote Becoming an Actor

Photo of Thomasina Unsworth Thomasina Unsworth teaches at Rose Bruford College, one of the UK’s leading drama schools. In this blog piece, she explains her frustrations at the labelling of students, and how that inspired her to write her enlightening new book.

My youngest daughter came home from school the other day in a miserable state. During swimming lessons her class had been divided into three groups: Jellyfish, Dolphins and Sharks. The Jellyfish, a shivering clutch of four sub-standard swimmers, were left in the shallow end to learn the basics, while the other children bobbed and ducked in the deeper water, superior species. Afterwards all the talk was of Jellyfish, Dolphins and Sharks. My daughter, hair still dripping from the pool, dripped too with shame.

Why do we have to label our children? What good does it do to attach titles to things? The jellyfish tank is my absolute favourite exhibit in the London Aquarium. The water glows pink and blue and one can be mesmerised by the slow clenching and unclenching of frondy tentacles. However, to a child who is battling for self-esteem and a place in the group, being labelled as a jellyfish may not seem so appealing.

Labels stick. Labels define. I spend my days teaching people who come wearing their labels to classes. ‘I’m slow’; ‘I don’t feel things intensely’; ‘I’m an extrovert’; ‘I’m a clown’; ‘I’m a bit mad’; ‘I’m a good girl’; ‘I’m a troublemaker’. The list is endless, but in that roll call of behavioural attributes my students lay out their perceived inadequacies and in doing so they shore up their limitations. How can they be open to an exercise when they know that they ‘over-think things’? How can they relate to that character when they know that they ‘would never behave that way themselves’? Get rid of the label and you liberate the student.

I am fed up of an education system that increasingly marginalises the arts. The arts feed imagination. They allow one to go beyond oneself, and do not concern themselves with the reductive policy of nailing things down in order to be neatly labelled. I am fed up of league tables and target ladders and numbers that tell someone how they are doing rather than words. I am fed up that in actor training we are now expected to grade our students, to attach a number to a name so that that person leaves thinking that they are worth 52% as an actor. What good does this do? It is a nonsense, a damaging nonsense.

An actor is not just a jellyfish.

I see the damage more and more in those I teach. They are fearful of getting things wrong. They care more for a number than a comment. They arrive ossified by their past experiences of school. Over the years I have noticed that the actors I train are, by and large, becoming increasingly result-orientated. Doing it ‘right’ is valued more highly than the simple experience of engaging in the ideas and exploring the possibilities. They have become attached to their labels, they are confused by open-ended questions, they want to know exactly what they should do to be good next time, as if actor training can be reduced to a set of equations: N+1=great acting.

Training to be an actor can be a bewildering time, even without this set of obstacles. When I went to college I felt unprepared, and I wished that I had been better informed. I arrived with lots of preconceptions about what the experience would be and was confused initially by how different the reality of the training was in comparison to my fantasy version of it. Had I been better informed I think I might have got a lot more out of my training. With this in mind, I set out to write a book that would help any aspiring actors to negotiate the obstacles – both those that face you at drama school, and those you will encounter in your first year as a professional actor.

The resulting book, Becoming an Actor, is intended as a handbook to accompany your training. It also contains a lot of exercises that will be useful not only for acting students, but also for teachers. I wanted to offer both actors and teachers a simple set of exercises together with the thinking behind them, uncomplicated by jargon or constrained by dogma. Training to become an actor is a valuable, important process, worth engaging with for its own sake. I hope the book will encourage actors to value their life experiences, and to hold on to what interests and fuels them, throughout those potentially dark days of unemployment.

The exercises in Becoming An Actor are varied. I do not believe that there is only one way of doing things, and hopefully actors and teachers will be able to be selective as they go through them. There is a great deal of emphasis put on working to release the actor from self-consciousness. Practitioners such as Meisner, Bella Merlin and of course Stanislavsky crop up regularly. However, Becoming An Actor also looks at ways of exploring extensions of, and departures from naturalism. The second half of the book concerns itself with auditioning and professional preparation and life beyond drama school. I hope that all this will provide the reader with a straightforward guide that asks them to engage in ideas before looking for results. I hope that it is both practical and thought provoking.

Becoming an Actor, £10.99

Becoming an Actor, £10.99

Above all, I hope that this book goes some way towards freeing those actors from the labels that have been attached to them, so that they can be as fluid and flexible in their responses as the movement of those frondy tentacles attached to the body of that jellyfish.

NHB are thrilled to publish Thomasina Unsworth’s Becoming an Actor. To order your copy with 20% off click here – no voucher code required.

For more information on Rose Bruford College, click here.

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One thought on “Thomasina Unsworth: ‘peeling off the labels’ – why I wrote Becoming an Actor

  1. Becoming an Actor is a tool kit to me as an actor. i am in my first year of drama school and i am following the book as i go with the academic year. Step by step it has proven to make sense of everything we do classes. It’s in essence the theories of everything that you’ll cover in drama school if you’re lucky enough to get in, but if you’re not, it will too provide you with the necessary tools and prepare for those scary moments of auditions. The last part of the book covers life after drama school, which surely is what everyone who goes to drama school id hoping to be a bright one. Most Acting books mainly focus on the acting skill but Thomasina’s focus on all aspects required to becoming an actor.

    I would advice anyone thinking of anything to do with acting, to grab yourself one!

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