‘Traditional Shakespeare makes me shudder’ – Andrew Hilton on keeping the plays fresh

Hiltonblog2_214x304Over the course of his fifty-year career, Andrew Hilton has directed dozens of Shakespeare plays to widespread acclaim – including from the Guardian‘s Lyn Gardner, who has called him ‘one of the great tellers of Shakespeare’. Hilton’s new book, Shakespeare on the Factory Floor, draws on these decades of experience, offering insights for theatre-makers, students and lovers of the plays. Here, he explains his approach to Shakespeare, and how to keep the work fresh for audiences today

Shakespeare on the Factory Floor is a by-product of my eighteen years running the theatre company Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory in Bristol; we produced thirty Shakespeares, some Chekhov, Sheridan, Stoppard, Moliere and Middleton & Rowley, in annual two-play seasons with an ensemble company of anything from fifteen to twenty actors. I sometimes wonder why I didn’t begin it twenty years earlier (I was already 52), though in 1980 there would have been no Tobacco Factory Theatres and I would not have been able to call on so much talent from the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School where I began teaching Shakespeare acting in the early 1990s.

At the Factory we wanted to offer not ‘traditional’ Shakespeare – the word makes me shudder – but productions we hoped were fundamentally true to his vision and intention. Though we edited, amended, sometimes even added text, we tried not to bend or distort, or to annex the plays to our own preoccupations. But we did interpret. Centuries of tradition cannot be scraped away to leave a ‘pure’ Shakespeare shining like newly unearthed gold; the traditions have to be overwritten, and worlds created for each play in which we can, to a degree, recognise ourselves. They have to have social and economic force and credibility; and everyone – from the leading characters to the tiniest bit-players – have to know where they belong in them and to have a more completely imagined life in them than ‘the two hours’ traffic of the stage’ will allow them to reveal.  These worlds might be Shakespeare’s own, as far as we can know and express it 400 years on; but they might also be ones he didn’t live to see.

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The Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory production of All’s Well That Ends Well by William Shakespeare, performed at Tobacco Factory Theatres in 2016 (Photograph by Mark Douet)

In my time with the company, we moved plays into the commonwealth period, the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the Edwardian period and the inter-war years. I never ventured into the present century, and I explain why in the book – you can read an extract on this subject below.

The approach seemed to work. After an alarming beginning in February 2000, when it seemed we might run out of money within days of opening (we had no subsidy, only private investment), word got around and before long we were playing to over 90% in our 300-seater in-the-round studio. And, against my own expectations, London critics began to make the trip – and to do so repeatedly, which has to be the best testament to their enthusiasm.

The company has now ceased production. In 2018 it lost its long spring slot at the Factory – the economic foundation of its still unsubsidised work – and then came the pandemic to deliver the coup de grace. I don’t mourn it excessively; I think theatre should always be light of foot, that companies should come and go, and never risk outstaying their welcome. But I am pleased that a book has come out of it, and grateful to Nick Hern Books for taking it on. I hope it will be enjoyed equally by those who witnessed what we did during those eighteen years in BS3, and those who never had the opportunity.


Read on for an extract from Andrew Hilton’s book Shakespeare on the Factory Floor.

Is Ophelia portable?

I have seen at least one fine young actress struggle to make sense of Ophelia in a late twentieth-century court. Shakespeare’s Elsinore – as a high-status dwelling – seems to be typical of the period, with women few and far between. Gertrude must have one or two ladies-in-waiting, but there is no evidence that Ophelia has any. Her mother we must conclude is dead; and if, Juliet-like, she had a wet-nurse as a baby, she has been long ago retired. There is no reference to any female friend or helpmate of any kind. This is not just theatrical economy; it is a very likely scenario. Her virginity is (to put it crudely) bankable; her education limited; her access to society at large, and the freedoms of the town, nil. She is lonely while being fiercely protected.

This is the soil in which the chaos of her madness springs; naivety, grief and unmediated sexuality woven together in lethal combination. It is also a representative soil; representative of a fearful and puritanical society, one in which – in the higher echelons at least – unmarried men and women are kept apart, and a young woman’s sexual awakening is expected to begin after marriage, not before it.

Is there a parallel for this in the western world in the twenty-first century? I think not, and here I must demur from Juliet Stevenson’s recent call for all future Shakespeare productions to be in modern dress. Social dynamics matter; and they change over time, impinging radically differently on interpersonal relationships and the sense of self. Our experience of politics, law, religion, work, love and marriage, poverty and wealth, disease and death all change. The extent to which these changes matter varies hugely from one Shakespeare play to the next, and I have as often felt able to escape the traditional ‘Jacobethan’ moment in design as felt compelled to stick with it. At the same time, I think we must credit our audience with the capacity to recognise themselves through the prism of an earlier period; that the past is not such ‘another country’ that it cannot live vibrantly and potently in our imagination.

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Shakespeare on the Factory Floor: A Handbook for Actors, Directors and Designers by Andrew Hilton is out now, published by Nick Hern Books.

Save 20% and get your copy for just £13.59 when you order direct from the NHB website here.

How to learn an American accent – top tips from a leading voice and dialect coach

RebeccaGausnell_214x304Rebecca Gausnell is a voice and dialect coach who’s worked on film, TV and theatre productions around the world, helping actors give convincing performances that not only sound authentically American, but connect the voice to the character they’re playing. In this extract from her new book, Mastering an American Accent: The Compact Guide, Rebecca offers some top tips on how you too can learn to use an American accent with confidence in auditions and performance.

It is not always obvious how to learn an accent. Some people are good mimics, but most require structured practice to hone the skill. And yet, during this work, actors can run into opposing objectives. The muscles of the mouth must move precisely, but without undue effort. The rhythms and melodies of an accent must be attended to, but not to an extent that overpowers the words being spoken. The accent is drilled tirelessly so that it may eventually be invisible in performance. Ultimately, the actor aims to embody an accent in every way – weaving pronunciation, muscular action, vocal musicality and an awareness of culture seamlessly into character and performance.

Here, and in my book Mastering an American Accent: The Compact Guide, I hope to dispel misconceptions around learning a new accent. You can learn a new accent – and the process can be fun.

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Rebecca Gausnell working with actor Rhys Ifans on the set of Berlin Station

What is ‘General American’?

In the entertainment industry and linguistically speaking, ‘General American’ is the term used to describe a group of vowels, consonants, grammar and vocabulary typical of many people from the United States. General American is often abbreviated to ‘GenAm’. General American is a purposefully vague term because the accent is considered to be non-regional. Bizarrely, this means that General American is an American accent from nowhere. This is different to other accents in the United States that tend to be classified based on region or by the ethnic group from which the accent originates.

Because of its non-regional features, General American is often considered a standard accent in the United States. In fact, the accent is sometimes called General American or Standard American interchangeably. That is not to say that the accent is neutral or more valid than other American accents. However, the accent does carry a level of prestige in the United States. A General American accent is typical of most-likely educated, often white, usually middle- to upper-middle-class Americans from around the country. But that doesn’t mean that all General American accent speakers fit neatly into those boxes.

The key here is the regional ambiguity of the accent. The accent expresses that the speaker is American without saying where they are from in the United States. A person could be from California or Vermont yet still speak with the universal features of the accent. In fact, the accent has been referred to as a ‘newscaster’ accent because TV anchors, regardless of the state, often speak with the accent. The accent also dominates American film and television today and is often called upon for American auditions.

The General American accent is more of a continuum of accents, not a single unified sound. It is an umbrella term that encompasses the most widespread American accent. Different speakers of a General American accent may sound slightly different from one another, because a person’s voice is influenced by many factors, including age, gender and lived experience.

Listen to this recording of General American voices speaking the same text to hear this in action.

Mastering an American Accent coaches the general patterns that make up a General American accent. However, specificity is key. Keep in mind that the perfect American accent does not exist. Every speaker is different, and it is the actor’s job to find an American sound that suits the character. Instead of searching for perfection, I would much prefer that the main features of the accent are present and that the accent sits comfortably in your mouth and voice.

Understanding an Accent

When working on an accent there are three distinct areas of practice:

  1. The mouth setting of the accent. This can be understood as the shape and position taken by the muscles of speech when speaking in the accent.
  2. The sounds of the accent, made up of vowels
  3. The music of the accent, which includes the rhythm, the stressing, the melody, pitch, volume, pace, vocal quality and the intonation patterns particular to an accent.

All three of these elements combine to form the technical side of learning an accent and each can be actively trained.

An accent’s mouth setting is the foundation of the entire accent, and a good place to return to if you hit roadblocks. I can assure you that if the accent’s mouth shape is off, the desired accent will be difficult to achieve with ease. The mouth setting is comprised of the muscles of the mouth and face. It includes how the muscles shape the voice and sounds coming out of the mouth. The mouth’s setting forms the basis of the entire accent, so I encourage you to give time and space to finding it in your own muscles. The next step is explore the consonants and vowels or the sounds of the General American accent.

The final technical step involves the music of a General American accent – the rhythm, stressing, melodies and intonation patterns of the accent. Admittedly, the music of any accent can be difficult to practise as there are few definitive rules. However, our ears tend first to identify accents based on the overarching music of a voice. This is why mastering the music of an accent can go a long way in convincing your audience. It can also be vital to feeling confident when performing in the accent.

There is one final piece of the puzzle to any accent, which is the inherent culture of the accent. This includes consideration of the people who speak with the accent, along with the accent’s geographical and historical background. We always hope that this element is already embedded in the character through compelling and accurate writing on the part of the playwright. However, it is the actor’s job to bring that character to life in a truthful manner. Keep in mind that in order to sound fully American you will also need to embody an American character in performance. An accent is more expansive than the sum of its parts. The lived experience of a character should always be considered when developing your performance.

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Orlando Bloom and Sophie Cookson in rehearsals for the 2018 Trafalgar Studios revival of Killer Joe by Tracy Letts, on which Rebecca Gausnell worked as a dialect coach – Bloom’s performance was praised by the New York Times for his ‘husky-voiced insouciance and pitch-perfect accent’ (Photo © Marc Brenner)

The Art of Learning an Accent

I encourage you to approach learning an accent in four ways:

  1. Conscious Listening
  2. Conscious Feeling
  3. Conscious Voicing
  4. Conscious Visualising

The act of Conscious Listening comes into play because you cannot reproduce a sound you cannot hear. It is only through listening that you can begin to approach an accent and understand it fully. Often the accents to which we have been most exposed prove the easiest to recreate. Even your own natural accent developed due to listening to your environment, your parents and your peers. Conscious Listening gives you exposure to the target sounds and music of the accent in order to reach this level of mastery.

Accent work concerns the muscles of speech, so Conscious Feeling develops awareness around these muscles so they can move with ease and precision in the accent. Take notes as you go on how the target sounds feel in your mouth. You may even want to assign a shape or picture to that feeling so that you can recreate the sound in the future. You could also find it useful to use a small personal mirror or a smartphone camera on selfie mode to see the mouth at work when making a new sound. Having those shapes in the mind’s eye will help develop and clarify an accent so that you can hit the target sound every time.

Conscious Voicing might also be described as mimicking or copying the sounds aloud with heightened awareness. Speaking in the accent aloud is important in order to begin rooting the accent in your own voice and body. A big mistake actors can make is practising the accent in silence. Although it may seem safer to stay quiet, you will master an accent by taking it on the road. Practise out loud in order to make strides towards a fully realised accent.

Conscious Visualising allows you to see and feel the accent at work in your own body. It may also give you the space to create your own images to aid the Listening, Feeling and Voicing work. Conscious Visualising will be different for everyone, but it can be an imaginative process that connects the accent to the body, breath, and voice. Perhaps you consider the elements of character – such as movement, pacing or breath – and begin marrying these with accent work. The ways into Conscious Visualising are infinite, and are something I look at in depth in Mastering an American Accent.

To be clear, you are not responsible for thinking about all of these points all of the time while practising an accent. There may be certain ways of working that you favour, and the preferred way will be different for everyone. Having an idea of your own learning styles can go a long way when undertaking a new skill. I suggest you experiment with all four approaches in order to create a well-rounded way in to learning an accent.

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L-R: Zawe Ashton, Kit Harington and Noomi Rapace, three more of the many well-known actors Rebecca Gausnell has coached in her prestigious, international career

Practising an Accent

Think of a new accent as choreography for the mouth. By working on foundational movements, the dance becomes easier to the dancer. Speech is equally physical. What is different is that you speak every day, and these are muscles that you use and engage with ease already. You have reason to be confident when working with the muscles of speech through the technical sections. The biggest mistake I feel actors make in performing with an accent is a lack of technique to solidify the work. I promise that technique will only strengthen your ability to integrate the accent into your voice and your performance.

There are many artists who may be opposed to the idea of drills. This is usually out of a fear that the drills will be done in a rote way and will lead to bad habits. However, you can avoid this by approaching drills with attention and connection. Using them wisely will free you from thinking about the accent in performance. Not unlike an athlete doing reps in a gym, drills build and prepare the muscles to work with ease. And just as the athlete completes their workout with alertness and precision, I encourage you to attend to accent drills with the same level of aliveness.

It is through conscious drilling that the muscles learn to respond. That’s why Mastering an American Accent contains drills and exercises to allow you to practise each new concept in isolation. These concepts are gradually expanded and applied to longer extracts from American plays.

Accent work is best approached little and often. There are many moving parts to an accent, and the brain and mouth muscles can easily get tired. Ten minutes daily over the course of a week can be more effective than a single one-hour practice session. Do not discount the role of repetition in voice work. It is only through repetition that we achieve mastery.

Embrace a sense of play and discovery in the work ahead. Children mimic voices all the time and have no hang-ups about getting them right or wrong. I encourage you to take on this same mindset when practising. Through play comes ease and freedom – freedom from self-doubt, from judgement and from self-critique.

A native speaker of an accent has found ease in their speech through years of practice. If you are coming to it later in life, the best place to begin is at the beginning. Do not worry if a concept doesn’t click on your first try. Meet the work with openness, and confidence will follow.


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This is an edited extract from Mastering an American Accent: The Compact Guide by Rebecca Gausnell – out now, published by Nick Hern Books.

Save 20% and get your copy for just £7.99 when you order direct from the NHB website here.

‘He was a bit of a wonder’ – a tribute to Antony Sher

Equity RawsAntony Sher, who sadly died this week, was one of the most respected actors of his generation. Most closely associated with the Royal Shakespeare Company – with whom he performed many of the most famous roles in the Shakespearean canon including Richard III, Macbeth, Lear, Prospero, Iago, Falstaff, Shylock, Malvolio and Leontes, as well as other classical and contemporary roles, and for whom he was an Honorary Associate Artist – he enjoyed a hugely successful career on stage and screen that spanned nearly fifty years. He was awarded a knighthood in 2000, for services to theatre.

In addition to skill as a performer, Sher also possessed many other talents, including as an artist and writer. Nick Hern Books is incredibly proud to publish many of his books and plays, including Year of the King – his gripping account of his breakthrough performance in Richard III for the RSC in 1984 – which has gone on to firmly establish itself as a classic of theatre writing.

Here, to mark the sad occasion of his passing, we share an extract from Sher’s autobiography Beside Myself, in which he reflects how he first fell in love with performing. And NHB’s founder and publisher, Nick Hern, remembers his own relationship with Antony – as author, interlocutor, passenger and gift-giver…


This is an edited extract from Beside Myself: An Actor’s Life by Antony Sher.

I owe Esther Caplan my career.

Esther was known as Auntie Esther to all her pupils, though I had a special claim to this name, for my brother Randall had married her daughter Yvette. Esther was officially a teacher of Elocution. This word was more respectable than Acting and more comprehensible to any parents sending their little darlings for tutelage. To learn to speak nicely made sense; to learn to act made none. Who would anyone in Sea Point [a suburb of Cape Town, South Africa, where Antony Sher grew up] become an actor? There was the Cape Performing Arts Board, which did occasional shows at the Hofmeyr [a theatre in Cape Town], and there was Maynardville, which did an annual Shakespeare in its leafy open-air auditorium, but there was little other theatre, no film industry whatsoever and television didn’t yet exist. There was some radio work, yes. In other words employment for about five and a half actors in Cape Town. It certainly wasn’t a career for me.

Esther had been an actress herself, during her youth in Johannesburg, and even worked with the most famous Jewish South African actor there’s ever been, Solly Cohen (later known as Sid James, the lovable Cockney of Carry On fame), but now she was a teacher: this had become her Great Role. She was an outrageously theatrical figure, Sybil Thorndike with a touch of Ethel Mermen thrown in. Tall, proud, big-bosomed, with a crash helmet of lacquered blond hair, skin darkly tanned and quite leathery, splashed with turquoise eyeshadow and bright-pink lipstick. She didn’t talk, she boomed and trilled. She didn’t walk, she strode. She didn’t gesture, she carved the air – thumb arched, forefinger splayed from the rest. Ballet dancers use their hands like this to compensate for not being allowed to speak. Esther was sometimes lost for words too, but only after emptying the dictionary: ‘Oh, my darling, that monologue was so outstandingly, brilliantly marvellous that… it was so superbly, fantastically, unbelievably amazing that… oh my darling, I don’t know what to say!’

She called everyone ‘my darling’. She was the warmest of warm springs; she bubbled, she gushed, she overflowed.

Given her style, the surprising thing is that she was fascinated by modern drama. By improvisation, by the Method School in New York, by the new plays coming from England by Osborne, Pinter and Wesker. So my first lessons in acting were not one might expect from a grand dame elocution teacher in some former corner of the empire – not Rattigan, Coward or even Shakespeare – but something altogether more contemporary.

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Esther Caplan (left) directing Antony Sher (centre), aged sixteen, in a production of The Bespoke Overcoat by Wolf Mankowitz

I quickly developed an appetite for my weekly visit to Auntie Esther’s studio: a bare room above some Main Road shops. I ceased to be Little Ant, hopeless at sport, mocked in the showers. Instead I became anyone I wanted to be.

At first the work was very private – just me and Auntie Esther – but I soon grew greedy for the next phase: a public audience.

Every year there was a local Eisteddfod [performing arts competition] in Cape Town’s City Hall. Along with Esther’s other pupils I entered several categories, Monologues, Duologues, and my favourite, Improvisation. You’d be given a subject, five minutes to think about it and then you were on. I used to cheat. I’d prepare situation, speeches and characters, usually based on favourite film performances – Oskar Werner in Ship of Fools, Harry Andrews in The Hill – and somehow adapt these to whatever subject I’d been landed with. No one seemed particularly fazed by the arrival of world-weary Viennese doctor or sadistic British RSM into a scene entitled ‘A quarrel on Clifton Beach’ and I did well; I won prizes.

In my penultimate year at school the English teacher, Quinn, mounted a production of the Whitehall farce Simple Spymen. I got one of the two leads: the Brian Rix role, the dupe, the clown. The gales of laughter that night were overwhelming; a storm of approval from the same people who’d scoffed at us in the playground. I was hooked.

The drug of laughter, the megalomanic thrill of the cheering crowd…

As I hear the tinny echo of cliché drift into the story, it strikes me that I’m not being altogether fair to myself. The attraction in acting is more deep-seated. I recall one late afternoon, finishing a game of Cowboys and Indians in the garden – me aged about ten or eleven – and my sister Verne unwittingly playing the critic again. She said, ‘You’re going to stop this soon, y’know, it’s puerile.’ I had no idea what the second half of her statement meant, but the first was unequivocal. You’re going to have to stop this soon. I remember staring at the churned black soil under a hedge where I’d been hiding and thinking how beautiful that place looked – a dark and dreamy place of make-believe – and how I didn’t want to leave it. Ever. Was there really no way to cheat fate: this inevitable business of growing up, of becoming sensible, of stepping politely on the earth instead of rolling in it? Was there no way of playing on?

Well, yes, there was, I discovered during that performance of Simple Spymen; yes, there were people – adult people – who did this for a living.

I decided I should go to drama school in London. When I told Esther she swelled her great bosom, gestured with balletic poise and boomed assurances: ‘You’re going to make it, my darling, I know you will, I promise you will. And in England, in London – the very heart of world theatre! Oh, it’s so incredibly, marvellously, fantastically exciting that… oh, my darling, I don’t know what to say!’

We started making enquiries about London drama schools and working on audition speeches.

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Antony Sher, aged eighteen, with his parents in Leicester Square, London, having just arrived in the UK to audition for drama school


NHB’s founder and publisher, Nick Hern, reflects on his forty-year relationship with Antony Sher. 

Tony was a bit of a wonder. A magnetic actor, of course, but also and equally an artist and author. I published five books by him, and in every case the vivid words were illuminated by equally vivid sketches. Also two plays, and a whole volume of his paintings and drawings. Furthermore, he was a delight to work with: punctilious, of course, but open to and eager for comment and improvement. If only every author were as receptive!

I first met him in 1980 in the wake of publication of his first, and most famous, book Year of the King. I had kicked myself for not having had the idea myself of asking him to keep a diary of his preparations for what turned out to be an iconic performance of Richard III. But the paperback rights were still available, so I seized them with both hands. Several equally illuminating diaries followed, on Falstaff, on Lear, on playing Primo Levi – and an eye-opening autobiography, Beside Myself.

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Antony Sher’s acclaimed Year of… books – capturing his experiences playing Richard III, Falstaff and Lear, respectively, for the Royal Shakespeare Company – are some of his many books to published by NHB

With each publication came obligatory appearances at ‘author events’, and I was flattered that Tony, rightly nervous of being interviewed by someone he didn’t know, would ask me if I’d step in. We began to refer to ourselves as the Abbott and Costello of the literary circuit. I was also his chauffeur (Tony didn’t drive and admitted to a total lack of sense of direction), and I would ferry him up and down the country to satisfy the many fans who would congregate at such events – often clutching an ancient, dog-eared copy of Year of the King for him to sign.

As I delivered him back home at the end of what was to be the last of such tours – for Year of the Mad King – we were met at the door by his husband, Greg Doran, clutching a bottle of Bollinger. ‘For you,’ said Tony, ‘for all your hard work’. If only every author were as appreciative!

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Antony Sher (left), Nick Hern (centre) and Gregory Doran (right), Antony’s husband and Artistic Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, at NHB’s 30th birthday party at the Royal Court Theatre, London, in 2018


All of us at NHB are devastated to learn of the death of Antony Sher, who has died at the age of 72. May his memory be a blessing.

Photograph of Antony Sher by Paul Stuart Photography Ltd.

‘It gives you the freedom to choose’ – Penny O’Connor on the Alexander Technique

The Alexander Technique has revolutionised the physicality, presence and professional lives of generations of actors. By first asking you to identify your own acquired habits, the technique enables you to find new and beneficial ways of moving, thinking, breathing and performing, freely and without unnecessary tension.

Here, Penny O’Connor – a teacher of the Technique for thirty years, and whose book on the subject, Alexander Technique for Actors: A Practical Course, is out now – explains its history, how she first encountered it, and how it can empower actors everywhere to unlock the key qualities any great perfomer needs…

When I was first introduced to Alexander Technique, it was a life-changer. My teacher placed one hand on my head and one under my chin and said ‘Simply follow your head’ as he gently guided me out of a chair in a way I had never experienced before. I arrived at standing without knowing how I had done it. I had no sensation of muscular effort. I was sitting, and then I was standing. It was seamless. I have been trying to work out how that happened ever since.

I was about nineteen, training as an actor at Rose Bruford. And just by the experience of moving effortlessly for a moment, I had this very powerful inkling that life could be something very different from what I had thought it was. I wondered then if I shouldn’t be exploring more of this stuff and forget about the acting lark. I was so moved. But no, I was wanting to be an actor, wasn’t I? And, actually, I didn’t have a clue how to go about doing more of this stuff! So I stuck to my acting guns.

The Alexander lessons continued – a small group of four of us would visit a training school in West London for our lessons on a Saturday morning – and served me well in my chosen profession. My voice, confidence and transformational acumen, my ability to connect with fellow actors, all developed hugely. I got the lead part in a third-year show! But several years on, I began to run out of steam. I was extremely anxious, impecunious, and my personal life was not easy. At that moment, another Alexander teacher presented herself to me. I treated myself to an individual session, and I knew immediately that I had come home.

From then on I organised my life around this desire to learn more and pass on the teachings to others. Once the decision was made, many things conspired to help me: a grant, an opportunity, a space on a training course – it was as if all the traffic lights had turned green. I qualified as a teacher of the Alexander Technique in 1992, and have been teaching it full-time ever since.

But what is the Alexander Technique, and how can it help you?

How it all began

It started as a means to solve a problem. Frederick Matthias Alexander was an Australian actor who, whilst on tour reciting Shakespeare in the 1880s, began to lose his voice. The doctor diagnosed inflamed vocal cords and irritation of the mucous membrane in his throat and nose, and recommended he rested his voice for two weeks. Alexander’s voice came back in time for his next recital, but halfway through the performance the problem returned and by the end he could hardly speak. They agreed that it must be something he was doing to himself. But what? Alexander was determined to find out.

‘His legacy lives on’ – Frederick Matthias Alexander, founder of the Alexander Technique

His observations took some months, but he eventually realised that, as he started to recite, he pulled his head back, depressing the larynx, and sucked in air through his mouth, which sounded like a gasp. At the same time, he was lifting his chest, thereby arching his back, which shortened his stature and created a pattern of tension throughout his whole body, including the legs. His elocutionist had suggested at one time that he should grip the floor with his feet and this he had faithfully carried out. All this amounted to a very strong pattern that he had cultivated, and he noticed it was something he did, to a lesser extent, even when he was talking normally, not ‘on voice’. So that was easy then: once we know which of our habits are causing the problem, we can easily stop them, right?

Habits, the greatest power in the universe, are like predictive text on a mobile phone. Alexander found a way of reprogramming his ‘predictive text’, creating new neural pathways from the brain to the muscle. By stopping and consciously redirecting himself, he found a natural movement and poise that freed the neck, so his head came up, his stature lengthened and widened, his legs released and his throat and breathing were no longer restricted. His voice returned!

When Alexander moved to London in 1904, armed with these discoveries, he began promoting this new method, working with the great actors of the day, including Henry Irving, Viola Tree and Lily Brayton. Writers such as Aldous Huxley and George Bernard Shaw also became devotees. He continued to teach and develop his work internationally, and his legacy lives on: Alexander Technique is still taught in theatre and music schools throughout the world, as well as to individual acting greats, helping actors perform effortlessly and with confidence, free in their movement and voice.

Here’s what some actors say of his work:

‘With the best of intentions, the job of acting can become a display of accumulated bad habits, trapped instincts and blocked energies. Working with the Alexander Technique has given me sightings of another way… Mind and body, work and life together. Real imaginative freedom…’

Alan Rickman

‘[The Alexander Technique] is a way to transform stress to joy. It’s my way of keeping on track with work and truth and the world I’m in, which is working with people and creating.’

Juliette Binoche

‘It’s beautiful, an art… it was about being still and relaxed in order to one hundred per cent listen to someone, to be present.’

Hugh Jackman

‘Alexander Technique really helped my posture and focus during my stint as Othello with Northern Broadsides Theatre Company. Imagine how excited I was when I arrived at the National Theatre for Comedy of Errors and found I could have Alexander taught to me once a week, I was chuffed to little meatballs.’

Lenny Henry

There’s an apocryphal story about Michelangelo being asked by a small child what he was doing as he chiselled away at a piece of marble. ‘There is an angel trapped in that stone, and I am setting it free,’ comes the reply. That is what it felt like to me when my teachers worked with me, allowing me to shed the unnecessary and reveal the essence. That is what I like to think I am doing when I work with an actor. Together we chip away at the old habits, the old patterns of use, to reveal the Inner Actor.

‘A way to transform stress into joy’ – some well-known advocates of the Alexander Technique

Making your own discoveries

I feel really blessed to have found this work (or that it found me), and that it has been such a big part of my life. This journey has now led me to write my new book, Alexander Technique for Actors: A Practical Course. My hope is that it will bring others to the work, to help them in their acting career and, for some, strike deep to the heart.

My book consists of a course of eleven lessons based on my years of teaching on the BA and MA theatre courses at the Arts Educational Schools in London, and on my own pathway through the work. I suggest it should take eleven weeks – one week per lesson, including theory, instruction and assignments – but it can be spread over a longer time frame. I have so ordered it that, if all you manage is the first chapter and first assignment, you will leave better informed, having learned something you can immediately put into practice and add to your actor’s toolbox.

As far as possible I have suggested a way for you to experiment on your own: after all, it’s your own journey. What you discover may not be what others will discover. It’s a personal journey to discover your habits, the way you use yourself in life, and to find a way of relinquishing those that are interfering with your performance. But you may find it easier to do this in a group or with a study partner, either face to face or online, depending on the circumstances.

Experiencing my personal Alexander journey, I find that I have become more myself, no longer limited by habit. We only change what we want to change, and it’s always our choice. Alexander returns us to self-awareness and conscious choice. We cannot always change the world around us, but we can change our reaction to it.

Habits are not necessarily bad things, but we need not be controlled by them. The Alexander Technique helps us become aware of them and gives us a way of letting go if they are limiting or restricting our performance. We can then transform effortlessly, speak clearly, move well in any shape we need for our character, receive and act on direction, and be electrifying onstage and on-screen. We’ll be embodying great presence, becoming vulnerable, sexy, unpredictable and intelligent, the four qualities a great actor needs.

Sound good? Then let’s start.


This is an edited extract from Alexander Technique for Actors: A Practical Course by Penny O’Connor, published by Nick Hern Books. See more and order your copy here.

Penny O’Connor has been teaching Alexander Technique since 1992, in London, on the Greek island of Alonnisos, and globally on Zoom. She has taught the Technique at several London drama schools, including ArtsEd, where she was resident for eighteen years, and is currently assisting in training Alexander teachers at the South Bank Alexander Centre. Penny trained as an actor at Rose Bruford College, and has also worked as an actor, playwright, director and teacher.

‘Anyone can improve their memory’ – Mark Channon on how to learn your lines more quickly, easily and confidently

MarkChannon_blogheadshotWhether it’s a script for a play, scenes for next day’s shooting, or sides sent over shortly in advance of an audition, every actor will be familiar with the process of trying to get their lines off the page and into their brain.

The pressures of line-learning can cause anxiety, and the fear of forgetting them can hit your confidence, your focus, and ultimately your performance – but it doesn’t have to be this way. With practice, experimentation and patience, it’s possible to strengthen your memory, reduce that pressure, and find a memorisation strategy that fits into your own process as a performer.

Here, Mark Channon – performance coach, ‘Grand Master of Memory’, and author of Learning Your Lines – explains how to go about improving your memory, and creating a personalised line-learning approach you’ll come back to again and again.

If you were to score your memory between one to ten, how good would you say it is, where ten is the best possible version and one is the memory of a goldfish?

When I ask this question to a room of a hundred people, around twenty per cent believe they have poor memories (ranking themselves 1–3), seventy per cent believe they are average (4–7), and only a small percentage, usually around ten per cent, believe they have excellent memories (8–10).

How good we believe our memory to be can have an impact on how we approach a situation. Let’s say you have an audition tomorrow and you believe you have a poor memory; this will make you believe perhaps that you ‘can’t do it’, or that your ‘memory isn’t good enough to learn lines quickly’. You may even have past experiences to back both of these statements up. However, when you approach any type of memorisation or learning with this type of belief, it’s going to increase your levels of anxiety and impact on your performance.

The truth is we all have fantastic memories but we tend to focus on the moments where it didn’t work so well: the name you didn’t remember; the fact that slipped your mind; the location of your keys. But these are only a few of the jobs our memory performs, and like any set of challenges, they can be overcome with the right strategy; indeed, if you were to think about all the memories you have stored throughout your entire life, you would start to realise that your memory is, in fact, phenomenal.

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‘The truth is we all have fantastic memories but we tend to focus on the moments where it didn’t work so well’

With regards to improving your memory, there is bad news and good news. The bad news is that there is no magic bullet; improving your memory is a skill, and like any skill, it will require time, effort and commitment.

The good news, though, is that improving your memory is a skill, therefore it’s something you can learn! All you need is a set of compelling reasons and some good habits and routines. Once these are in place, anyone can improve their memory. For actors, the compelling reasons are usually the big rewards you’ll earn: increased confidence, a strategy to learn lines rapidly, the ability to make lines stick, and the chance to have more freedom in auditions and performance.

But what habits and routines should you be using? This is where my book, Learning Your Lines, comes in. It includes dozens of tips, tricks and techniques such as Memory Palaces (yes, like in Sherlock), Mental Maps, Creative Memorisation, Visual Cues and many more, along with exercises and examples to illustrate how they work in practice. You’ll discover how to harness these tools to strengthen your memory, and develop a personalised line-learning strategy that works for you and your acting process – one that is easier, faster and more enjoyable.

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You too could build a mind palace like Sherlock Holmes (image from Sherlock © BBC)

In writing the book, I’ve drawn on both my own real-world experiences as an actor using these strategies for myself, as well as my many years coaching and training other actors. By both practising and teaching memory strategies I have developed a systematic approach not just to learning lines quickly, but also to building confidence and focus when applying this approach.

Let’s take a look at of one of the strategies I cover in the book.

The Chain Method

The Chain Method taps into our amazing visual memories; more than this, it also utilises our love for stories. Stories are easy to remember and hard to forget! In my experience, it is generally easier to remember the story and details of a fictional book than details of a non-fiction book, which might contain complex frameworks, terminology and facts.

When reading a story, you are in a state of flow whilst bringing the world to life with your imagination, making connections between characters and plots and, most importantly, making sense of things whilst being emotionally invested as if it were you at the centre of the story.

One of the differences between fiction and fact is that, with the first, you do not try to remember, it just happens through your heightened observation as you find yourself becoming part of the experience. With non-fiction, however, you tend to be much more focused on remembering, which ends up being counterintuitive. Stories that we experience can become unforgettable.

Try the activity below and see how the Chain Method works using the power of your visual memory and stories.

In a moment, you will read a story that includes fifteen main words. Each of these words is connected together with an association either visually, by narrative, or both. All you have to do is let the story come to life in your mind as clearly as you can, and give your attention to the details – what you see, hear, feel, smell or even taste. I’ll ask you to read through this story three times.

Imagine this:

Big Ben is wearing a fur coat, he’s bouncing up and down on a springboard and dives into a large pot of honey. Out of the honey jumps a dinosaur. The dinosaur is wearing a baseball cap and swinging a baseball bat. He starts smashing up a Ferrari with the baseball bat. Driving the Ferrari is Tom Cruise, Tom is holding a gigantic cigar; he takes a cigar and puts it out on the head of a bald-headed man. The bald-headed man is eating a big sticky chocolate bar. Wrapped around the chocolate bar is a slimy snake, the snake is playing the drums and drinking a bottle of beer.

Read this through two more times, bringing it to life with more clarity each time.

Now test yourself out. Grab a piece of paper and write down as many of the keywords as you can remember in order (not the whole story). When I run this activity with anything from thirty to a hundred people, most will remember over ten words. If you are in the group that remembers all fifteen, well done! If you happen to get less than ten, stick with it.

People often ask me: ‘How long does it take to develop a good memory?’ From my observations over the last twenty-five years as a trainer and coach in memory and performance, you can see improvement relatively quickly – usually within a week or two. However, to permanently establish the skill requires around six weeks of consistent daily practice: at least ten to twenty minutes per day.

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Tom Cruise in a Ferrari – did you remember it? If not, stick with it!

This six-week time span was backed up by two neuroscientists, Boris Konrad (also a world-class memory athlete) and Martin Dresler. Their research demonstrated that if you practise memory techniques daily then, in around six weeks, you see a change in the activity of your brain; your memory essentially becomes more efficient.

My hope is that Learning Your Lines will help you in this endeavour. Think of it as a set of ingredients in a recipe, rather than a fixed menu. As with all recipes, it’s beneficial to follow it as laid out at first. The first time, it may not turn out as expected, but with practice your skill will improve, and with enough time you will build the confidence to experiment with ideas, remove what doesn’t work, and add in what does, until you can eventually create something that feels personal and specifically yours.

Because if there is one thing that has stood out for me when working with other actors, it is this: everyone has their own process. Whether you follow Stanislavsky, Strasberg, Meisner, your own gut or some other method, the outcome for most actors seems to be the same: create an authentic character, be faithful to the story, live in the moment and react truthfully.

So whatever your process, you will hopefully discover that there is a way to integrate what you learn from the book into your method of working. Think about your craft as an actor and how these ideas can be added to augment your existing practice, rather than changing the essence of your process.

Above all, I have one simple suggestion for you in terms of approach: ‘Make it your own.’ You are much more likely to use what you own for yourself, and taking ownership is crucial to deriving real value from what you are about to experience.

On a personal note, there’s something that I have always loved about acting: the playfulness and impact it has in the way it creates and recreates imaginary characters and worlds, and gives audiences experiences that can elicit a feeling of entertainment and a sense of reflection. It can even be a catalyst for change. My hope for you is that you approach learning your lines with that same intention. Get creative, make it meaningful and you’ll make it memorable!

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‘Use it to create something that feels personal and specifically yours’ – Learning Your Lines by Mark Channon


This is an edited extract from Learning Your Lines: The Compact Guide by Mark Channon, published by Nick Hern Books.

Mark Channon trained and worked as an actor for many years, including at the National Theatre and in the West End, before becoming a Grand Master of Memory at the World Memory Championships. He now works as a trainer and coach in Memory and High Performance, and has written several books on memory improvement.

‘The training must go on!’ – Glyn Trefor-Jones on teaching drama socially distanced

Teachers and students returning to school this month are having to get to grips with a ‘new normal’ of bubbles, masks, and social distancing. The constraints caused by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic make teaching any subject trickier – but perhaps none more so than drama.

That’s why director, writer and teacher Glyn Trefor-Jones has created Drama Menu at a Distance: a new follow-up to his bestselling first book, Drama Menu, which has been written specifically for all those teaching drama during COVID-19. Here, he discusses how even in these unprecedented times, training the next generation must continue – and how his new book can help.

Since the COVID‐19 pandemic began spreading across the world in 2020, we have faced challenges like never before. For those of us who teach and lead drama classes and workshops, it must be our priority to do so in a safe, secure, healthy way – whilst also observing social distancing, in order to protect our students and halt the spread of the disease. But, as the old adage goes… the show must go on! At a time when performers are needed more than ever, training the next generation of performers must also go on!

For however long we must keep our distance, we will continue to create, to reinvent, to strive and to feed our creativity. Performers are resilient and resourceful and we won’t let a little thing like distance come between us and the drama.

This is where my new book, Drama Menu at a Distance, comes in. It contains eighty games and exercises that offer fun, creative, learning experiences without the need to get up close and personal. Several exercises have been adapted from my first book, the highly popular Drama Menudue to their appropriateness for socially distanced play, whilst the rest are new exercises that have been devised with distance in mind. Even at a distance, drama training can still be vibrant, engaging, energising and extremely rewarding – and these exercises set out to increase every player’s performance abilities as well as respecting the rules of social distancing.

For those of you familiar with the Drama Menu concept, you’ll find that the format of the new book remains the same. The eighty exercises are categorised into menu‐inspired ‘courses’ that increase in difficulty (and dramatic potential) as you progress through the book. You will find the same progressive approach to theatre training, with exercises categorised into ever‐more engaging courses. Just like a menu in a restaurant, you should choose one exercise from each course (or two if you’re feeling hungry) until you have a satisfying feast ready to be consumed!

Throughout the book there are also a great many exercises which are particularly useful as they can be employed in a physical setting and, with a bit of adaptation and ingenuity, in a virtual/digital workshop as well.

Social distancing must not be seen as an end to creativity. In fact, the current restrictions may prove to be the catalyst for untold invention if we embrace what’s possible, rather than lamenting what has been (temporarily) lost. Developing a new way of teaching and leading our students will only serve to broaden all of our horizons, if we have the courage to look towards a whole new world of dramatic possibilities just waiting to be discovered.

The global pandemic has provided an opportunity like never before to rethink the old, and bring a new approach to teaching drama. The more we allow ourselves to embrace these opportunities, the more creativity will emerge during this unprecedented time. So, let’s make this period one that will be forever regarded as a time when teaching was reimagined and rediscovered – and our students emerged stimulated, challenged, reinvigorated.

My hope is that Drama Menu at a Distance plays its part in reinventing what is possible within the drama session. When we are able to come together again, and the restrictions of social distancing are a distant memory, I trust that drama practitioners and players alike will be better, stronger and more resilient for the experience. By navigating this time with imagination and open minds, when the curtain rises on a new era of live performance, there will be a whole generation of inventive, imaginative, well‐rounded and resilient performers primed to take to the stage. At whatever distance, they will be ready once more to bring joy to our lives.

Until that time, stay positive, stay creative and stay safe.


This is an edited extract from Drama Menu at a Distance: 80 Socially Distanced or Online Theatre Games by Glyn Trefor-Jones.

Save 20% when you order your copy direct from publishers Nick Hern Books here.

To get a flavour of the book, you can download and keep four games – completely for free – in the Taster Pack, available here.

Wrestling with Brecht: author David Zoob on why Brecht still matters

Why are Brecht’s theories often so baffling? And are they any use to theatre makers today? David Zoob, author of the newly published Brecht: A Practical Handbook, explains how he was converted to Brecht, and why he still matters.

Sometime in the late 80s, when I was in my mid-twenties, my theatre company was touring a show about the first Palestinian Intifada to schools and colleges. We employed some of Brecht’s ideas without really knowing it. At one sixth form centre, the Head of Drama asked me if I would do a workshop on Brecht. She said that he was part of the A-level Theatre Studies syllabus and was almost impossible to teach. The students either didn’t get him, or they hated him. Maybe they hated him because they didn’t get him. ‘I see… and how much will you pay me?’ When she replied that it would be something like £30 for a couple of hours, I said yes of course I’d do it.

I then tried to remember what Brecht was all about. Two things came to mind: first, in his plays he would introduce a spoiler before each scene, telling the audience what would happen; secondly, in his essays he said that at any moment, an actor should show an audience that it would be equally possible for him or her to turn to the left as turn to the right. Or something like that. I had no idea what that meant.

When I got to the workshop I explored the spoiler idea. I asked a group of about six to improvise a doctor’s waiting-room scene. They loved representing sad, sickly people, but their classmates in the audience sat unimpressed. When I introduced a projection that read, ‘One of these people is about to be murdered’, the audience became slightly more interested. I waited a bit, noticing that I was now watching the audience much more than the improvisation. Then up went another projection, which read, ‘The murderer is on the right’. Now they really were interested. When one of the performers (who happened to be on the right) leaned over to take something from his bag, the audience started laughing nervously. The tension was palpable.

David Zoob leading a workshop on Brecht (source: YouTube)

We had stumbled across several of the ideas at the heart of Brecht’s theatre – ideas that have fascinated me ever since. The viewers knew the ‘ending’, and yet this made them more interested; they didn’t ask themselves ‘what will happen next?’ but ‘how and why?’ They didn’t identify with any particular character, and yet they were completely engaged; they studied individuals, making inferences about their actions and motives. One student commented, ‘We are told that Brecht is didactic, but this isn’t teaching anything.’ We agreed that in this example there was no ‘message’, but the spectators were nevertheless learning a lot about human beings, simply by observing them.

Theatre that encourages audiences to discover things actively without preaching to them? That seemed exciting, and it was quite different from what I vaguely remembered about Brecht from university. I read more, and realised why so many people didn’t like him. Translated by the esteemed John Willett, Brecht on Theatre was a tough read. And what was meant by that business about turning right or left? I realised it was about showing an audience that a decision was being made. Nothing was inevitable: humans could make the opposite choice at each pivotal moment. A bit like Sliding Doors, that film in which the central character’s life goes down two different paths depending on whether or not she catches a particular train ­– but with Brecht, the important thing was that the person would decide whether or not to get on the train. A moment of choice, not a whim of fate. A decision with a political, not a sentimental purpose.

Which leads us to the knotty question of Brecht’s alleged attitudes to emotion and empathy. In the workshops I gave, this was frequently the main issue. Brecht’s detractors complained that he was a killjoy: a severe Marxist insisting that theatre should be an ‘alienating’ experience, where a lack of feeling was supposed to be good for us. It certainly was true that his essays discouraged empathy, but I couldn’t square that with the frequent expressions of deeply felt emotion in his plays: Grusha’s flood of tears at the river in The Caucasian Chalk Circle; Shen Te’s anguish and weeping in The Good Person of Szechuan; Kattrin’s dumb rage and powerfully moving maternal impulses in Mother Courage. All this seemed to suggest that the theories were of limited use – or even a waste of time. It was as if the process of writing plays had made Brecht forget his key theories, as the business of writing and staging his work reminded him that audiences had to care about the characters for the plays to work, proving that emotion is the lifeblood of theatre.

Mayday Mayday Tuesday by Carlos Murillo, performed by students of Rose Bruford College, directed by David Zoob (photo by Benkin Photography)

Do I believe that? Partly. It’s the contradiction that sits at the centre of Brecht’s thoughts, his writing, and his practice. It’s a necessary and deliberate contradiction. I devote a whole chapter to emotion in my book Brecht: A Practical Handbook, and all I will say now is that the representation of emotion is a vital part of Brecht’s understanding of how humans live and behave. The conditions we live in mean that human impulses and emotions are frequently constrained, altered or even distorted, and performers can represent both the feelings and the things that hold them back. Emotion becomes an essential element in a dynamic tension (a dialectic, in fact). In Brecht’s view, emotion should never be portrayed as an end in itself. Never – as it so commonly is in Hollywood films – as a commodity.

When I started directing in the 1990s, I usually found myself concerned with the story and what it meant, rather than with the characters’ feelings. Some actors didn’t seem to mind; they just got on with the job of making personal connections themselves. Others sometimes complained that they weren’t ‘feeling it’, implying that I was supposed to do something about that. While I accept that on such occasions I was probably suffering from emotional illiteracy, I can now see why ‘the story and its meaning’ was so much more important to me. My work in the 1980s involved adapting the extraordinary and moving testimonies of people living in zones of conflict: a woman who had been shot in the eye with a plastic bullet in Northern Ireland; a former Israeli Paratrooper who, after becoming a journalist, had spent a year in Israel and the occupied territories disguised as an Palestinian Arab, daily risking his life in order to understand what life was like as his nation’s enemy; young Palestinian boys and girls who had risked arrest and savage beatings while protesting against the occupation. These people had trusted me with their stories, and when my theatre company performed them, our priority was to tell them accurately and make their meaning clear for our audiences. We wanted viewers to engage with the dilemmas of history. The young people who saw our shows certainly felt the scenes’ emotional power, but how we were feeling as actors wasn’t something we concerned ourselves with.

Mayday Mayday Tuesday by Carlos Murillo, performed by students of Rose Bruford College, directed by David Zoob (photo by Benkin Photography)

So I was struck by Brecht’s insistence that the actor should be re-enacting something that has already happened, rather than pretending it’s actually happening in the moment. This rang true for me. The actor was showing an audience what was significant about a moment in history, and the most important thing was that the audience should grasp that significance, and be provoked by it. My colleagues who taught in drama schools didn’t have much time for this idea. Their view, and one with which I partly sympathise, was that if an actor plays their character’s psychology ‘truthfully’, then the significances will take care of themselves. If they play their characters’ actions within ‘given circumstances’, if they are alive to the way other characters react to them… well then, we don’t need Herr Brecht to explain it all.

This position deserves far more discussion than I can give it here. It poses interesting and difficult questions: what is meant by ‘truthfully’? Which particular ‘given circumstances’ should be privileged over others? Why should psychological ‘reality’ be more important than other realities, be they political, moral, poetic or speculative? I think that including all these perspectives in theatre making allows us to create memorable dramatic events that can address the urgent questions that face us as a species.

Mayday Mayday Tuesday by Carlos Murillo, performed by students of Rose Bruford College, directed by David Zoob (photo by Benkin Photography)

Brecht: A Practical Handbook emerged from debates I had with my friend and colleague Julian Jones, an apparently incurable Stanislavskian who became increasingly interested in Brecht the more we wrestled with him. In fact, I’ve been wrestling with these ideas ever since that first opportunistic workshop I gave. And then, a couple of years ago, I took the step of writing a book. I wanted to write something that would be of use not only to a colleague like Julian, and to the young directors we worked with, but also to actors in training and to A-Level or undergraduate students who might have felt the same bafflement as I had. I included lots of exercises, so that readers could join in the wrestling process too. I hope, if you read the book, you will try the exercises and make them work for yourself. No doubt, if you do, you’ll improve on my ideas. Please let me know.


Brecht: A Practical Handbook by David Zoob is out now, published by Nick Hern Books.

To buy your copy for just £10.39 (20% off the RRP), visit the Nick Hern Books website.

To contact David Zoob, please use the Contact Us form here, and include ‘FAO author David Zoob’ at the top of your comments.

Author photo by Michael O’Reilly.

‘Theatre in its purest form’: Cheryl Henson on the power of puppetry in an increasingly digital world

Puppetry is an artform with ancient roots, but contemporary applications – and the international success of shows like National Theatre hit War Horse proves that it has lost none of its magic.

Here, Cheryl Henson, President of the Jim Henson Foundation, reflects on how that ‘magic’ happens, and pays tribute to director and puppeteer Mervyn Millar, author of a new book, Puppetry: How to Do It

The magic of bringing a puppet to life fascinates me. The precision of gesture that conveys a puppet’s inner life can be breathtaking, immediately taking me out of everyday reality and into a world where anything is possible.

As the President of the Jim Henson Foundation, a grant-making organisation that supports puppetry, I have had the opportunity to meet a wide range of artists. In addition to supporting American puppeteers, our foundation produced an International Festival of Puppet Theater for a decade, presenting more than 120 shows from almost thirty countries in five festivals. We were the first in the United States to present Handspring Puppet Company, as well as many other extraordinary troupes.

A number of years later, I had the pleasure of meeting Mervyn Millar when he worked with Handspring on the National Theatre’s production of War Horse. The puppeteers in this show brought full-size horse puppets to life and interacted as real horses with human actors. The horses were extraordinarily lifelike. Although the puppeteers were in full view, the audience readily accepted the puppets as horses. With the success of War Horse, Mervyn travelled internationally to train new performers to do these roles. He worked with actors, dancers and movement performers to give them the skills they would need to be good puppeteers.

The cast of War Horse in rehearsals

‘The horses were extraordinarily lifelike’ – the cast of War Horse in rehearsals

Puppetry is an ancient theatre form rooted in various cultures throughout the globe. Yet, it is also a contemporary art form embraced by innovative theatre artists creating new styles and techniques. That combination of old and new brings a particular dynamism to puppetry.

A simple puppet can be surprisingly appealing in today’s technologically complex culture. The prevalence of digital media and the easy manipulation of perceived reality is commonplace these days. When what is real in our everyday world becomes questionable, ‘realism’ can feel untrustworthy. In contrast, puppetry can be very straightforward. The magic feels real because you can see exactly how it is done and still choose to believe in it.

Puppetry invites the audience to participate in the theatrical experience. The puppet is not alive. No matter how well it is manipulated, everyone knows that it is not alive. It is an object that appears to breathe, to see, to think, to react – to be an emotionally whole being with an unknowable inner life, just like us. But we understand that a puppet is doing none of these things. It is an illusion that the audience agrees to go along with. It is theatre in its purest form. The puppeteer cannot force the audience to believe. The puppeteer must cajole, convince and carry the audience into the shared illusion of believing in the life of the puppet. As Mervyn puts it in his new book, Puppetry: How to Do It:

‘Something is happening when the audience believes in the puppet, and invests in it emotionally, that they recognise as being close to religious or ritual action. But we should remember that it also has the opposite energy – of playfulness and irreverence. The puppet is like a little god, or a little miracle, but also “just” a toy. It reminds us of being a child – when we imagine our toys into vivid life. I hope that the emphasis in this book on the active part the audience play in imagining the character helps to reveal how it is they who are making this connection…’

Of course, this connection to the audience does not happen if the puppet is not believably performed. The manipulation of the puppet is everything. How one trains to manipulate a puppet can vary immensely, but the fundamental principles remain the same.

I had the pleasure of observing Mervyn Millar teach puppet manipulation using the techniques in the book when he came to the National Puppetry Conference at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Connecticut, an annual gathering of international puppeteers that brings professionals and trainees together for an intense ten-day period of creative development. At this conference, I watched as Mervyn encouraged and inspired the participants to experiment with their choices, to pick up odd objects and combine them to create characters and give them movement: an old watering can and a wrench, a piece of hose and a bucket, a brass bell and some paper. All of them came to life before our eyes in new and unexpected ways. The atmosphere was calm and supportive, and the participants worked together to create unique characters.

Based on the workshops he developed for training performers for War Horse, as well as workshops like the one at the National Puppetry Conference, Mervyn has written his book to share his craft. With care and dexterity, he takes us through a basic training technique that uses simple materials like sticks and brown paper to focus attention on the movement that gives these objects the appearance of life. The exercises in the book are clear and easily reproducible for many different types of participants.

‘Giving these objects the appearance of life’ – one of Mervyn Millar’s workshops covered in his book
Puppetry: How to Do It (photo by Nick Arthur Daniel)

Although Mervyn’s book is aimed at training performers for live theatre, creating the illusion of life is a skill that can be used in the digital world as well. Digital media – video games, virtual reality, television, film, even social media – all contain manufactured reality in varying degrees. Creatures and characters within those realities can be brought to life by defined gesture and movement, just as puppets are. Whether through digital puppetry or motion capture, the human body and the human hand is still better at conveying movement that reads as life than any computer algorithm. Not only is the training outlined in this book beneficial for a range of performers, it could provide important skills for all sorts of jobs not yet invented in the creation of believable life in alternate realities.

By writing Puppetry: How to Do It and sharing the teaching techniques that he has mastered over many years, Mervyn has offered a wonderful gift to the field of puppetry. I hope that it will be used widely to introduce adventurous spirits to this dynamic art form.

The above is taken from the Foreword to Puppetry: How to Do It by Mervyn Millar.  Written by an experienced theatre and puppetry director, the book is a practical, accessible and inspiring guide to using puppetry in theatre – the perfect entry point for anyone looking to use puppets in their productions, to explore what puppets can do, or to develop their puppetry skills.

Get your copy of Puppetry: How to Do It for just £11.24 (that’s 25% off) – enter code PUPPETRYBLOG25 when ordering online here.

Cheryl Henson is the President of The Jim Henson Foundation and a member of the Board of Directors of The Jim Henson Company. The Jim Henson Foundation supports the creation of innovation contemporary puppet theater through grants to puppet artists and presenters. The foundation has given over 800 grants to over 350 artists.

Photograph of Cheryl Henson by Richard Termine.

Harriet Walter (The Nick Hern Books Anniversary Interviews)

Nick Hern Books is celebrating its thirtieth anniversary in 2018. To mark the occasion, we’ve commissioned interviews with some of our leading authors and playwrights. First up, theatre journalist Al Senter talks to Dame Harriet Walter…

Actor Harriet Walter has enjoyed a long and distinguished career, including playing almost all of Shakespeare’s heroines on the stage. As she ruefully points out in her latest book, Brutus and Other Heroines: Playing Shakespeare’s Roles for Women, she has reached a point in her career where she has exhausted the supply of mature female roles in the Shakespeare canon. Where, she asks, does an actress go after playing Cleopatra’s magnificent death?

Then, as she recounts in the book, the director Phyllida Lloyd came to her with the idea of an all-female Shakespeare season at the Donmar Warehouse. Committing herself to this experiment, Harriet played Brutus in Lloyd’s production of Julius Caesar in 2012, followed by the title role in Henry IV (a condensed version combining both parts, which opened at the Donmar in 2014), and then Prospero in The Tempest in 2016.

It was a journey into previously uncharted territory, but it clearly paid off when the three plays, performed together as the Shakespeare Trilogy at the Donmar’s temporary theatre in King’s Cross in 2016, was met with resounding critical acclaim, hailed by the Observer’s critic as ‘one of the most important theatrical events of the past twenty years’.

Harriet Walter as Brutus in Julius Caesar, Donmar Warehouse, 2012 (photo by Helen Maybanks)

Did such a positive response from the public and the profession surprise her? ‘Definitely,’ replies Harriet. ‘I initially expected a lot more hostility – even ridicule. But from the kick-off, we received wonderful reactions. If there were some dissenters back in 2012, by the time we moved on to the second and third play, we had built up a great following. And certainly among younger people, men and women, there was a feeling of “Women playing men? What’s the problem?”‘.

‘Most of the people I have heard from have said that they felt inspired and liberated by our productions,’ Harriet continues. ‘They told me that they had seen the plays in a completely fresh light and that there was a great significance to the work, beyond providing an evening’s entertainment. They also felt that the shows had marked a huge cultural shift in the world at large. I hope that doesn’t sound over-reaching.’

Naturally not everybody was sympathetic to what Harriet, Lloyd and the other members of the company were trying to achieve.

‘There are people, of course, who simply hate the idea of women playing men; but they mostly didn’t come to see the productions,’ reports Harriet. ‘Those that did come grudgingly at first often said that they were pleasantly surprised. I know that we usually only hear from people who have enjoyed the play. Those who haven’t liked it tend not to say anything, so I am well aware that we didn’t convert everybody. However, I’d argue that the strength of the reaction from young people outweighs the more negative reactions.’

Harriet Walter as King Henry IV in Henry IV, Donmar Warehouse, 2014 (photo by Helen Maybanks)

It could be argued that such experiments in gender-blind casting work best in period plays with a historical setting, where the characters, the language and locations are already at one remove from our own. Can a non-naturalistic approach to gender in casting work just as well in the staging of contemporary plays as it has done in Shakespeare?

‘This I am not so sure about,’ replies Harriet. ‘I think that it is more important to get new writers to create 360-degree female characters in new plays. The nature of Shakespeare’s plays depends more on the actors’ ability to live through language and communicate some universal truths that have not changed since Shakespeare’s day and don’t depend on naturalistic casting. The modern classics – the plays of Pinter and Beckett – belong in very specific worlds, created in the imaginations of those playwrights, and there would be complex arguments about the pros and cons of altering the gender of any of the characters. Change one brick and a lot of the meaning comes tumbling down. People need to be very clear on the reasons for changing the gender of a role – or the gender of the actor playing it. The important thing is that each production has a coherent motive for its casting scheme and that things are not done just for the sake of being trendy or different. It is important not to confuse an audience. If the casting lacks coherence, audiences can sniff it out and become alienated very quickly.’

Given her long association with the Royal Shakespeare Company and a working life steeped in Shakespeare, Harriet must feel a certain kinship with the playwright. Does she sense that he liked women?

‘It’s hard to be sure. I think that in general he loved them and was fascinated by them. He gave them many of the best insights – the most witty and wise arguments. But he also had some of the main characters express the sexist prejudices of the age – that women were fickle, vengeful or feeble. Whether he himself agreed with those voices is hard to say. He was human and he lived at a particular time.’

Harriet Walter at Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra, Royal Shakespeare Company, 2006 (photo by Pascal Molliere, © RSC)

For the moment, Harriet has a busy schedule, meeting her various film and television commitments, and you get the feeling that it will take something special to tempt her back to the stage.

‘At the moment, I’m very happy being in the audience watching things that I wouldn’t necessarily want to do myself. I want to do work that will break boundaries, and I want to keep going and be permanently challenged in what I do.’

In her professional life, Harriet has a fear of becoming stuck, like a musical instrument that plays the same notes over and over again. In a sense, her ground-breaking work with Phyllida Lloyd enabled her to find a different tune. But she has also challenged herself repeatedly as an author: her book Other People’s Shoes is an elegant analysis of what an actor is and does, while Facing It is a series of reflections on images of older women whose faces and lives have inspired her.

Actors, self-evidently, have other people’s words with which to go to war, so it must be a daunting task to have to invent your own.

‘I’m not saying that acting is easy, compared with writing, but you do develop a skill that reminds you that you know how to do it. And after you have reached the age of fifty, you feel the need to challenge yourself. I think we can all get a bit complacent at that age.’

Has she any further writing plans?

‘I enjoy writing but I think I need a break from writing about work,’ she reveals. ‘Perhaps I should try fiction. I have less reason to think I could do that, but I’m tempted to try.’

You heard it here first!


Harriet Walter’s Brutus and Other Heroines: Playing Shakespeare’s Roles for Women is published by Nick Hern Books in paperback and ebook formats.

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

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Author photograph by Georgia Oetker.

 

Understanding the Mad King: Antony Sher on rehearsing King Lear

Leading actor Antony Sher’s new book Year of the Mad King: The Lear Diaries provides an intimate, first-hand account of his process researching, rehearsing and performing arguably Shakespeare’s most challenging role, Lear, in the acclaimed 2016 Royal Shakespeare Company production.

This extract, written during rehearsals only a few weeks before the production opened, takes us behind the scenes of the RSC, offering a window on director Gregory Doran and the cast’s sharp, insightful interrogation of the text – and how events occurring in the world outside fed into the production. Also included are a selection of Sher’s magnificent illustrations, which feature throughout the book.

Thursday 7 July 2016

When I walk into the rehearsal room this morning, I find one wall transformed. Covered with sheets of paper: some with images, some with text. It’s the research that Anna [Girvan, assistant director] has led, about the homeless in Shakespeare’s time. Much of it is from two books by Gamini Salgado: The Elizabethan Underworld and Cony-catchers and Bawdy Baskets.

Reading the extracts, I learn that the failure of harvests in the 1590s, and subsequent shortage of food, led to the Enclosure Acts, where people were thrown off common land and deprived of their livelihoods. Some turned to petty crime, while others took to roaming the countryside.

This is the population that Greg [Doran, director of King Lear and Artistic Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company] wants to represent, as a kind of chorus, in the production.

Prince Philip’s Lear

I go over to my bag, find a picture, and stick it up among the others on the wall. It’s the one of Prince Philip which I sketched about a year ago – showing him in some kind of discomfort during an official ceremony.

Good. Now the display shows both sides of the world we’re trying to create. The poor naked wretches and the burden of monarchy.

Oddly, both sides represent the Dispossessed.

Odder still, Lear has brought it on himself.

In rehearsals of the storm scenes, I confessed that I didn’t know what to do with ‘Blow winds’. I said, ‘Let’s take the reality. A man is shouting in a storm. You wouldn’t be able to hear him. He probably wouldn’t be able to hear himself. We’ve solved how to do it in performance – we’ll be using mics – but how do we rehearse? I can’t just stand here, yelling. I’ll strain my voice.’

Derek Jacobi as Lear

I mentioned the brilliant solution which Michael Grandage and Derek Jacobi found in their 2010 Donmar production. When you first saw Lear in the storm, you heard the full cacophony of it. But as he lifted his head to speak, all the sound was abruptly cut, and he whispered the speech: ‘Blow winds…’ It was, as Lear describes in his next scene, ‘The tempest in my mind’.

‘Couldn’t we borrow that?’ I suggested tentatively.

‘Absolutely not,’ said Greg; ‘Much too recent. And anyway, that was a chamber-piece production and that was a chamber-piece solution, and we’re not doing a chamber-piece.’

He then came up with his own, striking scenario for the scene. He suggested that maybe the winds aren’t blowing – yet – and the speech is a desperate plea (‘Blow winds, I beg you!’), not simply a description of what’s already happening (‘Yeah, go on winds, blow!’)…

…And so we created a narrative to the speech:

  • A subsidence in the storm prompts, ‘Blow winds…’
  • A flash of lightning prompts, ‘You sulphurous and thought-executing fires…’
  • A crash of thunder prompts, ‘And thou, all-shaking thunder…’

We can put these cues into rehearsals, we can create the other character in the scene – the storm – for me to play against.

Stage management made precise notes: they’ll find some recordings from stock (for now) to play when we next rehearse the scene.

For me this was, potentially, a solution to the hardest part of the role.

Olly as Edgar as Poor Tom

Then we moved onto the first Poor Tom scene. Oliver Johnstone [playing Edgar] really went for the mad tumble of language in his speeches. (It’s not just Beckett who owes a debt to Shakespeare, it’s James Joyce too.) I was also intrigued to note that Olly had a new range of movements – some of them twisted and jerky, almost like cerebral palsy – and new sounds too: mumblings and stutters. This was all from his ‘secret’ rehearsals with Greg. Which is a technique Greg used with the witches in Macbeth. He’d work with them privately, so that we, the rest of the cast, never knew what they were thinking or what motivated them. It made them more mysterious, more powerful.

I think, in fact, it’s originally a Mike Leigh method. I experienced it when I did his stage play Goose-Pimples (1980, Hampstead and Garrick). Each of the characters was developed separately, in one-to-ones with Mike, so that when he started to bring us together and create a storyline, we encountered one another as strangers. After all, in real life you know little or nothing about people you meet for the first time.

The Minimalist (Richard Wilson directing)

I remember that the long Goose-Pimples improvisations, and later the equally long Auschwitz exercises that Richard Wilson devised to rehearse Primo (2004, National Theatre and Broadway) can make your head go to a very funny place. I was angry with both Mike and Richard after the sessions – because of where they’d taken me – yet my anger was totally unjustified: I could’ve stopped at any point, and walked away. Except I couldn’t, really – it becomes a kind of self-hypnosis.

Today, I wondered how much Edgar loses himself in the Poor Tom disguise? But, of course, I wasn’t allowed to ask.

Olly had a question for me though, in the mock-trial scene: had Lear been planning this cross-examination for a while, ever since his daughters turned against him after the abdication?

‘That’s an interesting thought,’ I said; ‘There must’ve been people yesterday…’ (when the Chilcot Inquiry into the Iraq War was published) ‘…who’ve become obsessed with the idea that Tony Blair should be put on trial for… what’s it called?… humanity… what’s the phrase?’

Someone suggested, ‘Crimes against humanity?’

‘Exactly!’ I cried; ‘That’s what Lear has been obsessing about. Except in his case, it’s crimes against the king!’


This is an edited extract from Year of the Mad King: The Lear Diaries by Antony Sher, published by Nick Hern Books.

Get your copy of the book for just £12.74 – that’s 25% off the RRP – by entering code SHER25 at checkout when you order via our website.

The RSC’s production of King Lear transfers to BAM, New York, from 7-29 April, before returning to Stratford-upon-Avon from 23 May – 9 June.

Illustrations by Antony Sher, photographed by Stewart Hemley. Author photo by Paul Stuart.