My second week on the Shakespeare summer workshop at LAMDA has been one of great discovery. I realise that in order to be a good actor and understand each character you play you must first understand yourself. Such has been the nature of the week – a period of real self-discovery. Naturally, I have unearthed not only positive things I never realised about myself, but also painful things that I normally keep buried deep inside. An exercise during one of our physical theatre classes had a particularly profound effect on me…
We started the exercise by lying on the floor in semi-supine (for those of you who don’t practice Alexander Technique, so probably most of you, this is lying with your knees bent and pointing to the ceiling and your feet flat on the floor – very good for lower back problems!). The teacher took us through a relaxation exercise with our eyes closed, moving down the body, concentrating on each muscle group in turn. Then, feeling relaxed and our minds free from the day-to-day clutter of our lives, we had to listen to our bodies and let them move as they wanted to. We started with the lower body, moved to the upper body, then brought everything in together. Gradually, as we became more involved in the activity, a few of us occasionally grunted, sighed or moaned, and all of a sudden three people began to laugh. The effect was unexpected and immediate – I curled up into a tight little ball and started crying. Although the laughter wasn’t in any way aimed at me and was simply a release of energy and tension from the people concerned, I hated the sound and wanted to get as far away from it as I could. It felt like an attack, and following my instincts I curled up to protect myself.
As the laughter subsided I felt the suffocating pain dissipate and the fear subside, and began to relax again as I unfolded myself up to standing. We were encouraged to open our eyes a little way once we started moving around so as not to bump into anyone, so I was vaguely aware of other human forms through the curtain of lashes, some upright, others lying with their feet in the air or rolling around across the floor. The exercise advanced further then as the teacher put on some music and we let our bodies react to the music and speak to us. This may all sound very hippy-like but I defy even the greatest of skeptics to do this exercise and not become completely involved. At one point I crawled into a corner, child-like; at another I started swinging joyfully form side to side, feeling the beat of the music fill my soul and forgetting everything but that moment, that sound, that feeling.
Eventually the teacher brought the exercise to a close as he lowered the music and told us to come to stillness and open our eyes in our own time. We wandered into a circle, wondering what exactly had just happened. I felt as if I had been to some long-forgotten place deep inside my mind and I took a while to come back again. As our teacher spoke to a few of my course mates I felt a sudden urge to cry again. Very much not wanting to lose control and exhibit such vulnerability in front of the whole class I very firmly told it to go away, but it wasn’t working! The urge overcame me and the tears spilled onto my cheeks. Moments later, when the teacher had asked the group for feedback on the exercise, I explained my vulnerable state and that it had mainly brought me pain, rather than pleasure. (He called it the pleasure-seeking exercise, as we let our bodies move how they want to and in a way that gives them pleasure, rather than restricting them as we normally do.) I was assured that any exercise can evoke different reactions in different people, and was reassured to hear that several people in the group had also experienced what I did, some feeling vulnerable, others just melancholy.
As I sat in my room that night I went over these events in my head, and realised that I had come to an important moment in these early days of my training. I was feeling vulnerable, and open, and receptive, and maybe a little bit scared. The exercise had been a difficult one for me because of the emotions it brought to the fore, and I understood what my singing teacher had meant when he said there would be times at drama school when you just wanted to go home. But I didn’t want to go home. I had a decision to make: I could stop there, protect myself, not get hurt, carry on the course but hold back when I felt myself exposed, and learn a lot throughout the remaining weeks but I may as well give up on being an actor right there and then. Or I could be brave. I could take a deep breath and plunge straight back in and open myself to it all and work hard and learn and take those risks of being in a difficult place, and at the end of the four weeks I would have started to move along the path to becoming an actor.
We are coming alive again. We are rediscovering what it is to be human. There will be tears of joy and tears of pain. There will be truth, and sometimes revelation. Being an actor takes great bravery, becoming one even more so. And I’ve made the decision to be brave.