Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Class act from Penelope Wilton

First of all, let me apologise for leaving it so late since my last post. Things have been a lot busier over the last couple of weeks than I had planned (in a good way!). I hope to get into a better rhythm with this which will mean that I write things weekly or fortnightly at the least. One can hope.

Anyway, on to more interesting fare...

Today I had the great opportunity of attending a workshop/masterclass given by Penelope Wilton (aka Mrs Crawley, Downton Abbey) at the Theatre, Film and Television (TFTV) department at the University of York. It was a masterclass on 'stage presence' and how actors take control of the stage in order to intrigue, entertain, and generally hold an audience during a performance. 

So, obviously we arrived early: we wanted to get good seats, not have to scramble over (and possibly, if necessary, hurt) others to get close to the acting legend that is. Luckily enough there were lots of other things occupying the TFTV students in other parts of the building so there was enough room for everyone to be comfortable and get involved. 

Mike Cordner (theatre prof. and all round good egg) came onto the stage with Penelope ready to introduce her but this was evidently not necessary. Penelope just smiled, took off her coat and launched into her class; never a thought spared. (Mike winked and took his seat, I suspect slightly in awe of how comfortable Penelope was with 200 over-eager undergraduates, and us, hanging on her every word.) Nobody could doubt her ability to teach a class on stage presence - we were under her spell from the off.

The first thing she talked about was the importance of posture and how an actor walks onto the stage. This seems an obvious point (she said as much herself) but one that is vitally important to get right. She worked with some of the student actors, going through various ways of entering and setting up, with body language alone, what the person's story might be. It was amazing how little time it took to really see an improvement in the students work and how at ease they were with her.

She also talked about how important it was for actors to people watch and to remember particular movements: how, for instance, when people trip over something they tend to turn and look at the spot on the pavement far longer than they need to in order to show others around them that they tripped; how we are always performing in life because we are aware that others are watching. 'Everything is interesting to an actor' was kind of the mantra for the afternoon. Soak it all up, remember it all, use it.
The students on stage then took part in a trust game that Penelope set up. One student would shout out a command ('let's all row a boat', that kind of thing), and the others would reply in the most enthusiastic way possible 'oh yes!' and do the action. (One actor suggested they 'all hug Penelope' and, instead of bulking at 20 18 year olds running at her, she threw open her arms to catch them all). The point was to be completely comfortable with each other and with what others might say, and to react quickly to what they say.

One of the most surreal highlights of the afternoon was seeing a group of students surrounding Penelope, all walking sideways as a crab jumping straight into the thriller dance. Her robot was great too.

It's difficult here to express exactly what was so good about the afternoon (apart from the obvious point about meeting Penelope herself) but I guess it comes from the fact that here was an actor at the top of her game, investing all her energy into the students that had turned out to see her. Her enthusiasm for her work - and, clearly, for passing that enthusiasm on to the next generation - was (luvvy as it sounds) truly inspirational. I think everybody got something out of today - I certainly did. Not only has it given me a hankering to get back on stage (a hankering I will resist, if for other people's sanity rather than my own) but it has made me reconsider what it is when we're doing 'theatre'. We're telling stories to people who want to hear them. We're telling them not just with words but with our bodies, with everything we've got. 

For a stuffy old(ish) postgrad who spends too much time reading and writing about theatre than actually experiencing it, this was a great reminder of the whole bloody point of it. Texts - words - are only part of the story. Actors, present on stage, can move us as much with a sigh, or a look, or a gesture, as they can with a word.

An English student abroad (or, at least, across campus)

Another great part of the day was meeting some of the staff and students based on Heslington East in the TFTV department, especially Mike Cordner, whose research interests terrifically overlap with mine. They're doing some really great work over on Hes East, lots of Jacobean and Caroline drama, lots of adaptation stuff and lots of educational theatre. I hope that at some point this or next term we can find a way of collaborating and pooling all our energies/activities to some exciting ends. But this is something on which to ponder, not to blog...

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