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Review: (*****) RSC Big Amateur Week-end

 Introduction:

I had a wonderful week-end on 13th & 14th October, at the RSC Big Amateur Week-en. With perhaps 100 other Amateur / Community Theatre actors  I worked with RSC workshop leaders in four half-day workshops to  build my / our skills in: Acting for the Stage; Movement; Stage Combat; and Voice and Text plus a Directing masterclass. And if that wasn’t enough, we had the opportunity to watch a performance of Coriolanus in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre (RST) and talk with some of the cast after the show; take a backstage tour of the RST; and see the RSC’s exhibition, ‘The Play’s the Thing’. All for the relatively inexpensive price of £220 per head (+ travel and accommodation).

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The idea for this weekend for Amaeur Actors had grown out of the RSC Open Stages programme, in which the RSC engaged with community tand amateur theatre groups across the UK.

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This week-end is not a one-off, though future plans are not yet finalised, but:

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The RSCs Big Amateur week-end (for Theatre Makers) runs from 21st – 22nd November.

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The RSC may run Big Amateur week-ends in 2018. Dates have not been finalised.

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Tickets can be booked form the RSC Box Office (Tel: +44 (0)1789 403493)

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Note that attendees are restricted by rehearsal space etc – we used the RSC’s usual rehearsal spaces – The Other Place. Attendees seem to be restricted to around 100; there’s a strong demand for tickets; tickets are hard to get hold of.

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If you are interested in building acting skills as outlined in this review, you may find it easier to contact the individual workshop leaders, who are all freelance, and mostly RSC Associate Practitioners They may be willing to work with you at your location in the UK, USA, and sometimes elsewhere.  In the first instance, contact Richard Forsyth of Players-Shakespeare.com via FB messenger, and we will put you in contact with the appropriate workshop learder(s). Note that Players-Shakespeare.com does not have any financial interest in this.

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The workshop leaders on the RSC Big Amateur Weekend were:

Annie, Acting for the Stage workshop, Practitioner with RADA and Guest Practioner with the RSC.

Michael, Voice and Text workshop,  RSC Associate Practitioner

Tom, Stage combat Workshop RSC Associate Practitioner

Sinead, Movement Workshop,  RSC Associate Practioner

Ailieen, Directing Msterclass, RSC Associate Practitioner.

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As Michael, the Voice and Text practitioner said during this course: “We’re expensive, but we’re the best.”

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Our Bottom Line:

If you have a strong interest in Shakespeare as drama, or are a member of a Community Theatre or Amateur Dramatic group, and you think your group’s Shakespeare acting skills should be improved, either as an individual, or as a group, you could not do better than attend an RSC Big Amateur Weekend. If that is not practical or possible, you should consider engaging the workshop leaders to develop specific skills for your group.

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Our Review (*****):

 

The Attendees:

So who were the participants in the week-end? There was a good mix of ages and genders. Many had come as individuals to improve their Shakespeare skills, but there were some  theatrical groups who had a number of attendees. If you are trying to build the skills of your group it obviously make sense to have a number of key members attend such a week-end.

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The hundred or so attendees were divided into four groups  each of which worked through a set of four 1/2 day, 2 and 1/2 hour, workshops over the two days. Everyone in my group was based in the UK, though there could (and perhaps should) have been international attendees. The levels of experience of the attendees varied significantly: from actors with many years of experience acting Shakespeare, to actors who had not yet done any Shakespearean acting.

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The Workshops:

I am going to go through the workshops in the order that I attended them. Before we get into that, there were some common themes that ran through the workshops which are worth sharing:

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Each workshop started with a warm-up. The purpose of the warm-up is to make the recipients more receptive to playing together. This saves tome -and does not waste it, even for amateur groups who may only have a couple of hours together to rehearse after a hard day’s work.  The warm-up may also prepare the body for the physical exertions ahead.

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All the workshop leaders were insistent that warm-ups are not an optional nice-to-have but an essential process to enable the group to work together effectively. If your group starts doing warm-ups, your group will benefit.

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A major objective of all the workshop warm-ups were to get people out of their thinking heads and into their bodies as a way to: free up the imaginative process; remove pre-conceptions and self-consciousness; and try to get into the present. Even in the Voice and Text workshop, where one might think that the process would start with analysis of the text, the approach turned out to be to allow the bodies of the participants let the meaning in the text appear.

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A simpler way of saying this is that to give of your best, you have to forget yourself. Much effort was expended at the workshops getting people to do that.  (A pianist friend, who adopts a similar approach to getting high-quality performances, swears by a book called: The Inner Game of Tennis, by  W. Timothy Gallwey, and available from third-party sellers on Amazon (Search for The Inner game of Tennis).

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In the following sections I give an overview of each workshop with the highlghts as I saw them. This will, I hope give you an impressionistic view of the week-end.

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The workshops were so useful that I plan to provide detailed posts in our Support for Playreading and Production FB pages of those of the workshops that could work online so that you can try them out yourselves. Of course, they will not be so effective without the workshop leaders, but I think I can  provide enough detail to let you get some benefit from those workshops.

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Acting for theatre Workshop led by Annie (RADA practitioner and RSC Guest Presenter):

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The Acting workshop started with a warm-up, focused on getting us out of our heads and into relationship with the others in the group. These warm-up exercises were mostly group word games, focused on getting us to interact with each other,  with an emphasis on eye-contact.

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Once we were thoroughly warmed up, we went on to the meat of the workshop. This was an exploration of a scene with some minor roles  from Richard III (A2S3) with three characters (citizens). We explored the scene using the Actors Twelve questions.

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The most important of these is:

– What do I want?

And perhaps the next two most important questions

– Why do I want it?, and

– Why do I want it now?

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(I’ll cover the 12 questions in detail in the specific  post on this workshop later.)

We played the scene in groups of three, with Annie acting as a really smart director, pointing out how we could improve things, and imaginatively improving the scene through bits of business.

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Movement Workshop let by Sinead (RSC Associate Practitioner):

After lunch, our second workshop was the Movement workshop given by Sinead. This was the workshop from which I could most benefit, because usually, I’m afraid, my body is an appendage which carries my head around so it can get on with what it has to do. So my body and mind are not well integrated. The workshop certainly got me into my body but I find it difficult to express how it affected me.

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We started with a warm-up. To begin we explored the room that we were in by walking around the room, observing the space in which we were.

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We explored our body through stretches and bends and extensions

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We started walking as individuals around the space, and then forming into a number of groups, rather like a game of musical chairs.

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Then we started to explore the relationship between each other by walking around in groups. One member of the group would lead, and then relinquish leadership by turning around and and facing the group, with someone else taking over the leadership.

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Things got more complex. We were encouraged to move from one group to the other as w wanted to, and to add add sounds to the moving group.

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Then the group started to explore pieces of text, but with a focus on the movement of the group and the physical relationship of different members of the group.

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For me, this workshop was a helpful start, but it will take considerably more than an afternoon session to bring my mind and body together satisfactorily.

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Directing Masterclass let by Aileen Gonsalves  (RSC Associate Practitioner):

By now it wass about 4:00pm in the afternoon, and the four groups gathered together for a Directing Masterclass. Aileen, who runs her own theatre company, gave us an inspirational overview of her approach to theatre, with demonstrations using attendees to demonstrate the techniques she uses in rehearsal. Aileen only directs Shakespeare. “I’m too lazy – he’s a genius – why direct anybody else?”

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Aileen started with a discussion of what the director’s role is, what makes a good director and what makes a bad director. Interestingly, the group could easily identify directors’ faults, but found it very difficult to identify good directing practices.

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Aileen described her approach to directing actors:

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Theatre has the power to open an audience’s hearts.  The actor’s role is to make the play live in the audience’s hearts through an empathetic response to the actor’s feelings. For this to work, the performance of the actors in the play must be authentic.

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The key to getting an actor to give an authentic performance is to get their attention off themselves. There are perhaps two key things to do:

The play unfolds moment to moment, so the actor has to live in the moment and has to give up control. (Easy to say, but not very easy to do).

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An actor’s performance is dependent on the other actors – if acting is really about reacting. So an actor should focus their attention fully on the actors he’s working with and allow himself to be affected by them . (As well as improving the actor’s performance, this also helps build a company).

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Aileen then demonstrated these thoughts through a series of exercises using members of the group. In couples, actors were encouraged, initially without words, to respond to their partner to do something in response (move towards them, or away from them). The initial results were not very authentic. The players were learning a new technique and it didn’t come easy.

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However, things improved with practice. In the final version of the exercise, Aileen raised the stakes considerably by creating conflict between the two players, so that one was resistant to being affected by the other. This brought an extraordinary authentic, emotional, performance from the other which brought the two actors together, hugging each other, as the rest of the audience broke into heart-felt applause. Point made, perhaps not for you as a reader, but for those there, in the audience.

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Coriolanus & After-show discussion with actors:

Next, it’s the evening performance of Coriolanus. . The show was excellent, Coriolanus superb, but a lot of our interest was in the after-show discussion with the actors Around eight of the players, including Sope Dirisu (Coriolanus)  came on stage and talked to the group about what it was like to work at the RSC; acting on a thrust stage; and a variety of other questions, two of which stood out for me:

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Sope Dirisu was asked what his career path had been to lead him to the role of Coriolanus at the RSC. He told us that Coriolanus was his third professional role. He had done some acting at school; he had joined the National Youth Theatre; he had become involved in the RSC’s Open Stages project. As part of his RSC Open Stages experience, he had played in a production of Pericles made up entirely of RSC Open Stages actors. And now he was playing Coriolanus!

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Someone in the group asked what the audition process had been. None of the actors had a really clear idea of how, or if, there had been an audition. The RSC is part repatory company, part individual play productions. There seems to be a complicated negotiation of the directors of the various shows to bring together the cast(s) they want for their various shows. An actress, playing one of the Tribunes in Coriolanus, told us an amusing story of how she had been interviewed by the director, without a clear idea of who she was expected to play, and without the involvement of her agent. Some time later her agent phoned and said she’d been offered a role in Coriolanus. When the agent realized how big  that role was she went back to the RSC and asked for more money. She got some.

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When the session ended, it was after 11:00pm. I’d had a long day, and went exhausted, but happily to bed.

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Stage Combat Workshop led by Tom (RSC Associate Practitioner):

The next morning we were back at 9:30 for our Stage Combat workshop. We were met by Tom, the workshop leader, and three assistants (Stage combat is a risky business so you want to keep it safe).

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We had the obligatory warm-up which, as you might expect, consisted mostly of physical exercises to warm the body: shaking and waving arms; bending legs; etc until our bodies were well and truly warmed up. It must have taken at least 15 minutes.

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For Tom, stage combat is a matter of extremes. It is at the extreme end of human communication, when words have broken down and one, at least, of the parties, has resorted to violence. It’s at the extreme end of trust between actors. Participants have not only to be concerned about the safety of each other, but also of the audience and back-stage people.

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Learning stage combat is like learning a language. One might think that it is close to other stage disciplines like movement, or dancing, but Tom believes it has closer links to Voice and Text. Each fighter has their own objectives and the stage fight is a dialogue between actors. The stage fight tells a story.

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Tom then walked us through the stage combat story that we would lean in the workshop:

Two people are walking towards each other down the street.

They bump into each other, which forces them to turn around and make eye-contact.

One (Fighter A) comes towards the other, and apologises.

The other (Fighter B) pushes Fighter A away.

Fighter A walks off.

Fighter B approaches Fighter A, and turns Fighter B around.

Fighter B throws a punch.

Fighter A ducks the punch and then draws a knife.

….  etc

Tom and Matt demonstrated each of these steps, showing how to exaggerate the force of each move while minimizing actual force and risk Then, the group, divided into pairs, rehearsed a step of the fight. They rehearse it in slow motion, and  then they rehearse it again – and again. What starts as clumsy moves, slowly develops authenticity.

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By the end of the workshop there are some authentic-looking fights taking place. The group has learned the first steps of a discipline which had been a complete mystery.

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Word and Text Workshop let by Michael (RSC Senior Associate Practitioner)

My final workshop was the Voice and Text workshop let by Michael.

I had attended earlier versions of this workshop twice before: first as part of the RSC Open Stages workshops in Glasgow, and secondly, when, again as part of Open Stages, Michael came to a Shakespeare Festival we ran at Traquair House, where he gave a similar workshop to some of the cast of our production of Twelfth Night, and other people.

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I will  summarise Michael’s approach as exploring a Shakespeare text through the body. In this version of the workshop , we explored a short scene from The Winter’s Tale (A3S1),  where Cleomenes and Dion describe their visit to the oracle at Delphi. It’s a short scene – it fits on one sheet of paper.

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The group wasn’t told anything about the scene. Indeed we didn’t even get to see the words for the first 30 – 45 minutes. That was taken up with a warm-up aimed at getting us out of our habits and into a situation where we were approaching the world freshly, a similar place to that Aileen tries to get her actors to. The time is spent removing physical habits. Do you always have your hand on your hip? Well stop it! Do you always have your mouth closed? Then open it, ready to receive the world. All this done with good humour and wit from Micahel to keep us engaged with a process of waking up and becoming aware.

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Finally, we were each given the speech on a sheet of A4, but we are not allowed to read it. Instead we spend more time learning how to hold it. Hold it high (maybe chest height) in our left hand, so your head is up, your chest is open, and you can make eye-contact with other actors.

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Finally, we were allowed to speak… but only one word. The group is in a circle. One person starts to speak by turning to their neighbour; making physical contact with them – usually a grasp of the shoulder – and eye contact, and then says one word of the speech.

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The recipient then turns to their other neighbour, makes physical and eye contact with them, and says the next word – and so on round the circle. Sometimes we do it clockwise; sometimes we do it anti-clockwise; we start with different people – everything to keep it fresh.

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To begin with it was clumsy, you could drive a horse and cart through the pause between words; people can’t find their word on the page. But slowly it improved, until the group makes sense from the words.

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When we reach Michael’s exacting strandard of freshness, we are allowed to move onto the next stage. Instead of one word, we read a whole line. Of course a line may still not be a sentence and therefore may not make sense, but at least we’ve got more than one word to say.

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When we’ve mastered that, we move on to each person speaking a phrase. Still we’re receiving t(open-mouthed, and open-eyed) the previous phrase from our neighbour, with physical and eye contact, and then turning to our other neighbour  to deliver our line. And now the meaning of the speeches are beginning to appear from the efforts of the group. We don’t know the play; we don’t know the context; the speeches aren’t particularly easy; but meaning is beginning to emerge. And the speech and the meaning has a freshness because thought has not been allowed in.

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Finally, members of the group are allowed to read whole speeches, and then all the speeches of a character, and then we can play it as a scene. We can even start to think about the scene, to analyse it, and see how the language of the characters differs. The point is not to get rid of thought, but to allow a more bodily- felt experience o the words to take its rightful place.

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The group  recognised that the speeches have a freshness and a meaning that has emerged from the workshop. The work of the group, directed and encouraged by Michael, has allowed the meaning to appear.

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To explore  a detailed report on this workshop click on the following link: RSC Voice and Text workshop.

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Conclusions:

As I hope is clear from this post, I fouid this week-end of workshops etc from the RSC enormously powerful. They  lets me experience Shakespeare’s lines with freshness and with depth.

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The workshops made up a complex process, but at its heart it seems to me that they are trying to give us the tools to open ourselves up to the works, and minimise the interference our thoughts bring to that process.

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In a recent post – How Shakespeare helps children – and adults – I tried to show  how children can be moved by Shakespeare’s plays when they experience them subconsciously with the freshness that I was lucky enough to experience at the RSC’s Big Amateur Weekend. Perhaps some of the techniques we explored over the week-end would be helpful to children.

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If you get the chance to attend  one of these session – go! If you’re group would benefit from similar workshops from one or more of the practitioners, contact them to make it happen.

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Let’s Play!

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Richard Forsyth
‘The Director’
Players-Shakespeare.com

 

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2 Responses to "Review: (*****) RSC Big Amateur Week-end"

    • Richard Forsyth
      October 17, 2017 - 10:23 pm Reply

      Susan,

      We don’t have a mailing list. I’ve got so fed up with the misuse by companies of my email address that I don’t want to do the same to people who like to follow our site.

      Instead, you can follow our Facebook pages. There are two main pages:
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      (a support page for people who use our Shakespeare edition for play-reading or production.

      If you go to either or both of those pages, and like or follow the page, you’ll be able to follow our new publications.

      If you don’t use Facebook, leave another comment herre and I’ll find some way of keeping you in contact.

      Best,

      Richard Forsyth

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