A Week At Acting School - Part One

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As I mentioned in a previous post, I spent a lot of time last year trying to learn as much as possible about the different aspects of my craft as a filmmaker and director. One idea that I came across again and again was that a director cannot work well with actors unless they have some acting experience. It's a simple idea that I think holds a lot of truth. Would you get up to conduct an orchestra if you had never played an instrument? However, surprisingly, many directors – at least in film – do not come from acting background. Some directors may find actors a bit mystifying, or even frightening. This was definitely true for me in my early years as a filmmaker. With all of this in the back of my mind, I'd wanted to take some acting classes for quite a while. When I saw an article by Randolph Sellars basically saying the same thing a few weeks ago, I knew that the time had come. I had a bit of time before we needed to start shooting Play It Safe, and the VCA had some short acting courses that were just about to start. I bit the bullet and signed up.

The course was 10 AM to 4 PM, Monday to Friday. We started each day with one hour of voice training and one hour of movement training. After lunch we then spent the remainder of the day in smaller classes focused on different things. The class I signed up for was "the actors process", but there were plenty of others covering things like character development, working with text, and acting specifically for the screen.

I'm not going to lie, I absolutely hated the first day. I've worked behind the camera (or behind the computer) for a long time now, and taking this course took me well outside of my comfort zone. To compound this, many of the first day's activities were also quite confronting. We often had to make some kind of random movement or sound in front of the whole class, which can be a little embarrassing to say the least.

However, by the second day I was feeling a lot more comfortable. The purpose of activities that at first seemed strange became more and more clear, and I enjoyed the course more and more with each day. By the end of the week, I was having the time of my life, and I was sorry that the course had to end. I can now say from personal experience that doing some acting classes is hugely beneficial from a director's point of view, and I hope to do more as soon as I can.

For now, I'll do my best to summarise the main things that I took away from the course. If this sounds like something you'd be interested in, you can check out the VCA's short course website here.

THE MAIN AIMS OF THE COURSE

No one ever sat us all down and said "ok, this is what the course is all about..." But over the week I got a pretty good feel for what I think are the main components we were focusing on. Here's my take on it:

PRACTICING YOUR INSTRUMENT

I heard the phrase "your body is your instrument" a number of times throughout the week, and we did many exercises based around developing your voice and movement control. Initially, this stuff felt a bit counter-intuitive to me. I spent a lot of last year reading about "working from within" and being "in the moment". How can you be present when you’re thinking about your breathing and your posture? But, again, it's a simple idea that makes perfect sense. With practice, these things become unconscious. They just become second nature. When a great jazz trumpeter gets up to do a solo, he is in the moment, he's improvising and just playing whatever is right at that particular time. However, he can only do that because he has spent years and years practicing his fingering and breathing. Instead of this physical stuff getting in the way of being in the moment it actually empowers you and gives you the freedom to follow your impulses.

We did a bunch of exercises based on breathing, running around, posture work, etc. While I could start to see the benefits of these things, they were more of a taster for people interested in taking a one or three year course.

BREAK DOWN THE WALLS

In everyday life there are a lot of things we might want to do, but we can't because of social conventions (or sometimes laws as well). We spend most of our lives repressing these thoughts and feelings. For example, you wouldn't cry like a baby every time you don't get your way. That would be embarrassing. And you might not make a move on someone you have a crush on because you're afraid they won't return your feelings. These are examples of censoring yourself, of listening to your inhibitions.

But what if you're an actor and your character has to cry? Or what if your character is a pick up artist? What if they're a stripper? Or a prostitute? Or a serial killer?!? As an actor, you may have to do many things that you would not allow yourself to do in your everyday life. A lot of the exercises we did in the first couple of days (the ones that often initially me feel quite self-conscious and embarrassed) can really help to break down these walls.

One such exercise was called "Cry Baby Tag". In this exercise one person runs around trying to tag people. When you're tagged you have to (surprise, surprise) roll around on the floor crying and squealing like a baby, until someone else comes up and gives you a big soothing hug and tells you that everything is going to be okay. Then you can get up and continue running around. Now, this might sound like the absolute worst thing in the world to some of you (which is pretty much how it sounded to me when the teacher first explained it), but a few rounds of this game (or others like it) can really help to break through your inhibitions.

BEING PRESENT

There are many ways to describe this: "being in the moment", "working moment to moment", or "being present". Almost everything we did last week was helping to develop our skills in this kind of "impulse work".

We started most days with the same exercise. Everyone finds a place in the room. We stand still, focusing on our breathing. Then, when we have the impulse to, we start to walk. Then, when it feels right, we can stop again. Or run. Or squat down. And so on. On the first day I kind of got this, but by the second day I was really starting to get the hang of it. I was surprised by how quickly I feel into the pattern of just following my impulses. I wasn't thinking "Should I stop for a bit here? Or should I run? I hope I don't look like an idiot?!?" I just did whatever felt right.

It may be hard to believe, but I can really see how a simple exercise like this is really important in working up to a proper performance. Bad acting looks rehearsed. It doesn't feel real. You can see the actor's thinking about what they are supposed to do next. Sometimes it doesn't even seem like they're listening to each other, they're just saying the lines. On the other hand, good acting doesn't seem like acting at all. The actor is working off impulse. They're simply doing what feels right in the moment. This not only means following their internal impulses, but also working off other actors as well.

Make no mistake, staying in the moment and working off your impulses is not an easy thing. It's very easy to get distracted and before you know it you’re thinking about what you want to have for lunch instead of staying present. Again, this is where these kinds of exercises can be extremely useful. They give actors the chance to practice so that when they actually have to shoot a scene, or get up on stage, they can maintain their focus and stay in the moment.

In addition to the daily warm up, there were a couple of other basic exercises which were both fun and useful. One was a game based around Shoals of Fish. You start in groups of three or four in a triangle or square shape. One person takes the lead, following their impulse and walking wherever feels right. The others follow. When the leader changes direction, then its time for another fish to take the lead. For example, if the leader turns left, then the person to the left takes the lead. And so on. Eventually, different shoals collide and join up until you have one huge group of people all working together and sensing each other’s impulses.

Another fun game was called Puppy Play. It basically is what the name says. When you watch two puppies playing, they don’t have any rules. They just do what they want. They run around in circles, towards each other, away from each other, they lie down, they jump. You do essentially the same thing in this game. We did it in groups of two. Without any discussion at all, we started to play. Running around. Creeping. Jumping. Watching the other person and working off impulse. It sounds silly, but it’s actually pretty fun (and good exercise too). Most importantly, it’s great practice for honing your focus and being aware of the impulses of another actor.

CONCLUSION

Ok, I better stop typing before my hands fall off. I’ll do another post in the next week or two exploring some other insights I gained from the course.

For now, I have to thank all the tutors in the course. They were all really wonderful. Shout outs to the other students as well! It was great meeting and working with such a lovely group of people!

Chris Pahlow

Chris Pahlow is an independent writer/director currently in post-production on his debut feature film PLAY IT SAFE. Chris has been fascinated with storytelling since he first earned his pen license and he’s spent the last ten years bringing stories to life through music videos, documentaries, and short films.