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Bitchiness of students who resented me at English drama school

Monday, September 24, 2012    

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IT'S easy to harmonise Laban theory with Stanislavski's method acting. I've taken from each the things that I could make my own, and now they've come together as perhaps me. I've stuck to the things that from time to time I found to work — the memory exercises that perhaps define an aspect of a character.

Over the years some of what I learnt has been fine-tuned to the point where I don't even remember that I do it. It's like breathing or walking.

Method acting can be dangerous. There was one actor who, if he had a role to play, would go out and live like the character for a spell. But once he wasn't able to come out of the role. I think the character was a street person and he went and spent an awful lot of time with winos and by the time he had finished playing the character he could no longer find where the character left off and he himself began.

I've had moments when I've been frightened silly. I'm thinking, 'Christ, can I come down, or am I going to take all this home and not be able to get rid of it?' But in fact, once you can stay out there and watch yourself play the character, it won't happen.

Stanislavski works from the inside and demands that you use everything that happens to you. If something hurts you, once you've gotten over it you sit down, review it and file it so that, if you need it, it is there. If something wonderful happens to you, you remember not just the feeling of something wonderful happening but exactly how you reacted, what you felt and what you did.

I've found it has worked not only for the stage but for my own personal life as well, in that things happen and instead of being totally devastated — though there's a natural period of feeling a little sorry for yourself ('Poor me, why did it happen to me?"), but maybe over the years that period has gotten shorter and shorter — you review the experience saying: 'Now why did it happen? How did it happen and how did I feel, how did I react?', and you file it away. I find that, maybe because of that approach, I end up not nearly as bitter as I could have been.

I think that because I had lived a little bit before I started my training I was able to get quite a lot more out of the sessions with the methods tutor than a lot of other students in the class. I didn't mind contributing some of the things that had happened to me — good, bad or indifferent — and this helped my development as a person as well as a performer. You get used to being exposed. Some of the characters I play make me feel like that. I find now that I hardly think of myself as having secrets, though there are certain things I don't particularly want to share.

Nell Carter, the lady who worked with us on Shakespeare, had been one of England's most famous Juliets. She gave me my first little boost when, about halfway through the term, she said, clearly indicating me: 'Well at least there's one person in the class who speaks Shakespeare like a real person, instead of declaiming and posturing.' That didn't make me a favourite with the class, but it meant that I got an awful lot from Nell Carter. Another tutor was Valerie Hanson, who had been a fabulous actress and a great beauty. In an accident on her way to a performance her face got badly messed up and she was terribly bitter about this. But if she recognised potential she would give you special attention — for instance, she made me straighten my back. I had been unaware that I had a sort of curve and was slumping, until she said: 'No, no, no, no, that will never do! Come on, I expect better from you!' There were a couple of other caring tutors who said: 'You're here because you have talent. Be positive.'

I am an intuitive performer, some tutors told me, and therefore vulnerable when working with actors who are extremely technical. I depend on the other actors to give, so that together we create the circle of energy that makes the audience feel they're eavesdropping. Some schools of English acting that are purely technical can be off-putting because these actors avoid eye contact on stage, they tend to look or focus slightly off-right or off-left. It's like everything is worked out in the mind, with so many beats to that gesture, so many beats to that move. For the intuitive performer that style can be a big challenge, though it works well in a farce.

There were some negatives in my experience at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA). When I got there I was afraid of speaking, because I sounded so different from the other students. Some tutors seem to think that if you're black and from the Caribbean or any black country, you won't be able to communicate in English. Also, their theatrical history was so vast and so well set that one easily felt like an outsider. There were things I wasn't sure I could handle, because I didn't understand them, I hadn't been exposed to them. Sometimes I thought, 'What's the point of learning that? When I go home I'm never going to be asked to do that.' And although I was diligently studying all this wonderful Standard English, these English customs and social graces and so on, nearly every time I got a role they wanted me to be from Trinidad, Jamaica or Nassau or South America.

Robin Midgely was the exception to that. I had worked with him in Jamaica. Now back in the UK, he was directing a television series, Dixon of Dock Green, and he gave me a role where it didn't matter whether I was black or not, and in which I spoke standard English. Because of him, I worked with the extraordinarily talented actor Judi Dench.

I sometimes worried about losing myself; a black girl, a black woman, a black performer, with no intention whatever of staying over there. But a few tutors and well-wishers said, 'Look, you're going to go home, What you should do is take the best of what is offered here, make it your own, learn as much as you can, so that you can make good use of it, but don't ever let anyone change who you are. Keep your own accent, keep your Jamaican identity, and become a rounded performer.' That was excellent advice. It paid off. I learnt to do several non-Jamaican voices — including Indian, Bajan, Trinidadian and Cockney. Later, when I went to Australia, I played a number of English characters.

One of the negative things at drama school was the bitchiness of students who resented me and the opportunities that came my way. During term breaks — holidays — I always had a paying job in the office as an assistant to the school secretary. This was a blessing and a great financial help. Also, the principal knew it was difficult for black performers to get really decent roles, so if something came up — if he knew of it — he'd send me up for it. I would get time off to do it, but had to keep up with my class work and assignments. Some of the students were terribly catty about what they saw as special treatment.

Tomorrow: An unplanned pregnancy and a disappearing boyfriend

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