Actor Director Masterclass with Kristine Landon-Smith

Michela Sisti, participant director

In January of this year I observed Kristine’s “Introduction to Acting” workshop as well as participated as a director in her “Actors and Directors” workshop. The four short days I spent in Kristine’s class were rigorous, intense and absolutely packed with learning. I left our Arcola studio on the evening of the fourth day feeling tired and happy and quite transformed. I am very grateful to Kristine and Tamasha for giving me the opportunity to have challenged myself with such a rewarding method of working with actors.

The most important thing a director should nurture in an actor’s performance is that actor’s willingness to play. An actor at play is relaxed, open and, in Kristine’s words, “free to fly”.

Kristine’s approach to directing is both simple and rigorous: how do I get the actors in front of me to be at their absolute best? It requires a huge amount of focus and sensitivity from the director who must be completely tuned in to the actor’s performance in order to detect what is preventing this actor from being in a relaxed and open state of play. Likewise, the director should also be looking for moments in which the actor absolutely shines. If the director can figure out what is allowing this actor to fly freely then it is possible to guide them back to that open state in other moments of their performance.

So, Kristine’s approach ultimately places the actor, rather than a superimposed vision of the director, at the centre of every performance. It also requires the director to engage with each actor very closely and to understand that what may work brilliantly for one actor will not be right for another. Out of this understanding that each actor should be guided along his or her own individual path comes Kristine’s intracultural practice, which I will discuss in detail later on in this blog.

Part 1: Kristine’s Games/Warm-ups

One of the first things Kristine explained to us when we began her workshop was that a game or warm-up used in a rehearsal room cannot be random. It needs to have a purpose; it needs to take the actors on a journey.

Kristine began each day by playing a few rounds of volleyball with the actors in a circle. According to Kristine, the only thing that matters about this game is that it teaches the actors how to play well together. Kristine was actively directing even as she was playing with the actors. She was counting the number of times the ball was volleyed in a clear and energized voice while throwing in words of encouragement in between. She was also the ongoing bullshit police: if the group began to dissolve into unfocused hilarity, threatening to become children playing rather than actors playing, Kristine would firmly rein them back to the task at hand. At the end of this game any awkwardness or guardedness that had been clinging to the actors had melted off. The group was open and ready for more.

The next game was a variation on tag. It should be played at a stage when people are still learning each other’s names. The actors began by walking around the space. The person who is “It” is intent on tagging someone. The only way to prevent yourself from becoming “It” is to say the name of someone else in the space, who then becomes the new “It”. If you are tagged before you call out someone else’s name then you lose a life. If you are tagged after losing three lives you are “out”. When there were four people left in the game Kristine made the space smaller. The rest of us observed from the sidelines. As in all of her games, Kristine was actively directing: encouraging the actors who needed to be encouraged, goading or teasing the actors who she could sense would response better to cheekier feedback, and always keeping track of who was “It” so that could flow energetically without stumbles.

For the third game Kristine asked the actors to break up into two even groups. The members of each group formed a huddle and numbered themselves from one to seven (there were 14 actors in total), taking care not to let the other group know who had chosen which number. Next, Kristine asked the groups to stand in two rows, one group facing the other with space between the rows large enough for actors to move around in. Kristine then stood on a chair situated between these two rows, dangled a glove in the air and called out a number between 1 and 7. If Kristine called out “four!” then the fours from each row would have to enter the space and snatch the glove from Kristine’s hand before the other person did, then quickly run back to their row before they could be tagged by the loser.

In this game Kristine warned the actors against “playing too hard”. If each person called into the space only focused on snatching up the glove and dashing back they would miss a far more important opportunity: the opportunity to play. So, the actors were encouraged to actually stand the in that very charged and risky space and find out how to play with each other. This game also put the actors ‘on stage’ for the first time in front of their peers which meant that the potential for discomfort or anxiety was suddenly increased. The more experience and actor has being ‘on stage’ in the rehearsal room, the better equipped he or she will be to deal with any nerves that might derail a carefully created performance.

On my third day in Kristine’s class I had the opportunity to lead this game as a director and I found it difficult to pull off. I felt I did a good job setting up the game but when the time came for the actors to face off for the glove in the space everything fell incredibly flat. At this point Kristine cut me off and we took some time to cheerfully discuss why what had gone wrong. I realized that that the game began to fail the moment I had dropped out of it. Whereas Kristine had tantalized and provoked and teased and laughed with her actors when she led this game on the first day, I had l limply stood on a chair with a glove dangling from my hand expecting something interesting to happen.

During this moment of realization something Kristine had said earlier, that the director must bring her personality to the room, became especially clear to me. The director must always be in the thick of things, not removed from the action, because how can a director expect a group of actors to be vulnerable and open and present if you are not vulnerable, open and present as well?

Another game that Kristine led was used free up text for the actor. In the first stage of the game actors divided themselves up into pairs and took five turns each trying to slap the other’s hands, while the other attempted to remove them before being caught. Again, Kristine urged the actors not to be swallowed by the aim of winning the game, but instead to remain with each other and figure out together how to remain in an attuned state of play. In the second stage of the game Kristine instructed everyone to add bits of text to their monologues every time they went for a slap. The actors were told to resist imposing meaning onto their text, but rather to fling out the words almost unconsciously – they could be speaking gibberish and it wouldn’t make a difference. Through this game many of the actors realized that they had become used to speaking their text in a very rigid way. It took a few rounds of playing these games to loosen up those habits and open the actor to the text again.

Other games Kristine introduced to her actors had to do with building complicité among a large group. Kristine experimented with variations on sending rapid claps around a circle. The claps were passed one way and then another as the group strove to keep them as even and fast as possible. The claps then became movements with accompanying sounds that were passed around the circle. These movements and sounds could be transformed by the actors but the transformations had to be spontaneous. On a later date Kristine asked her actors to send rapid claps around two concentric circles, on clockwise, the other anti-clockwise. She challenged the actors by asking them to move from outer-circle to inner-circle and time their movement in order to catch the new clap. Kristine also led games that involved improvising and shifting rhythms.

One particular game Kristine used had the purpose of giving the actors a chance to feel stupid in front of each other. Everyone begins by sitting in a circle. Someone runs around the outside of the circle with a sock and secretly drops it behind one of the sitting members of the group and continues running. If the runner makes it all the way around the circle again and tags the person they’ve left the sock behind before that person notices, that person is out. This is another way of using the rehearsal room to air out any kind of anxieties an actor might be carrying with them that could get in the way of arriving at an open performance. It is important for a director to create an environment where actors feel comfortable enough to practice failing in front of each other and in front of you.”

Anna-Maria Nabirye, participant actor

“It was so refreshing being back in the room with Kristine. The open actor and the art of play is so delicate. It needs to be nurtured and revisited. As easy as it is to find the wave and be open in play is as easy as it is to completely forget that the wave exists and to close in on yourself. I had forgotten how easy it was when riding the crest of the wave, how many choices and I had at my disposal when open and having the pleasure to play. What these 2 days taught me was that I am responsible for remembering the ease of riding the wave, I am responsible for keeping open and finding the pleasure to play. If a director helps me on my way then that is a bonus. My career, my artistry my choices.”

Pooja Ghai, participant director

“I am an actor who is moving into directing, and building my practice. Joining Kristine on this workshop was both challenging and overwhelming, this was because after only two days we covered so much ground, and I left the room thinking about so much.

As a practitioner Kristine is fantastic to observe. She runs a room on honesty and has an actor centred approach. I have had the joy to work with her in a professional capacity as an actor. To be in the room and learn from her in the capacity of a director was wonderful.

Kristine is an instinctual practitioner; she works with what the actor gives and guides them to find their sensitivity with each other, and to discover each other through complicit play. I was able to see very quickly what my short-comings were, and understood where I needed to build my confidence and how important it was to find the right language for the actor. It has made me want to get back out onto the floor, to gain more confidence and build my practice. Thank you Kristine, once again an incredible workshop, that takes you to the heart of good practice.”

Ed Fromson, participant actor

“Tamasha’s Acting and Directing workshop focuses on the actor or simply ourselves. To try and make us use ourselves in the most sensitive and open way when approaching a text. Kristine focuses on making the directors ask the right imaginative questions that frees the actor from the cliché surrounding text/character/objectives that can sometimes muddle what’s needed. The result is that the actor can achieve his beauty on the stage. A wonderful workshop which I can’t rate highly enough.’’

Ery Nzaramba, participant actor

“I came out of the workshops rejuvenated and my confidence restored. And, mostly, liberated. Because the most important thing I learned was that it isn’t about the character or the background story or the story itself (that is all taken care of by direction, text, costume, design etc), it is about that moment in the scene, between you and your fellow actor(s). Not the characters, but the actual actors. It’s about “playing” with them. Using your lines and your understanding of them, you play with the other actors. Even use your native language/accent as a way in, if necessary – you are more likely to be “yourself” when speaking in your own voice. I found this method particularly useful for period pieces because they’re so far from us and you must use any means necessary to bring it to ‘you’. Bring the ‘character’ to you, don’t go towards the character – or you’ll just be ‘acting’ (it won’t be truthful). And with Kristine you know without ambiguity when you’ve stopped playing and started ‘acting’. She lets you know with no uncertain words. Which is great because you know where you stand but it can be intimidating and fear inducing. That fear is the one thing I wasn’t happy with, though it’s a personal issue: I’m thin-skinned and find it hard to take criticism. But I know it’s necessary to take it well so I do welcome it and just deal with my sensitivity.”

Anne-Marie Piazza, participant actor

“I like coming back to a masterclass with Kristine Landon-Smith because she cuts straight to the heart of what it is to be a really good actor. We worked on a text that was very new to me and by just telling me what my character needed and was motivated by she guided me to produce the kind of work I always wanted to do – honest and truthful theatre. Directors like this are rare, I’ve only known one other. And though she is now based in Sydney even this little refresher was useful to reset my ‘general’ acting into something specific, purposeful and true to me.”

Jen Tan, participant actor

“It is very easy to slip into bad habits and very easy to do an impression of good acting and I think we see a lot of this because we don’t challenge performances which are ok, even if at the heart of things we know that it’s an impression of a truth and it is so much more of a risk to step outside of pretence. Kristine always calls this out and I thank her for it. In the process of working with Kristine over the past 3 years I have found more simplicity and ease to my performance and since the sessions last week I have been reflecting on taking risks and pulling down barriers (or not putting them up at all) in my broader theatre practice.”

Mai Cunningham, participant actor

“I was initially quite nervous about taking this masterclass, but was glad I did. Usually the element of ‘play’ that one hears so much thrown around theatre, in my experience, often comes off as ‘enforced play’: making actors play games together in ways that make them act like they are playing rather than really playing. I have never enjoyed the ‘warm up’ sessions at the start of rehearsals, I find they don’t relax me or warm me up at all, and I prefer to get on with the script work. However, Kristine taught us all the value of play in order to create that connection with your fellow actors. To relax and enjoy the work. To enjoy the process of working with actors and to create a real sense of playfulness, and she did this all with such ease and a clear wealth of experience. She also taught actors the value of being ourselves and being genuine on stage. Something that is so easy to forget, and yet Krstine managed to remind us in two days. It’s a wonderful experience to feel so relaxed on stage while performing and being yourself. Her wealth of experience and knowledge is clear to see, and she shares it with great humour and openness. Her eye for recognising the mistakes and achievements we, as actors, do not realise we are doing is amazing. It was wonderful to work with new directors too and to see their learning processes in comparison with actors. It reminded me that directors are human too! I highly recommend this workshop to anyone. Absolutely invaluable.”

Kiran Sonia Sawar, participant actor

“The actor/director workshop with Kristine was absolutely a worthwhile experience. It’s an excellent way to learn new acting techniques and refresh existing ones post drama school. I also got to work with new young directors and collaborate with actors I hadn’t met before. I look forward to hopefully working with everyone again soon!”

Naveed Khan, participant actor

“I walked out of Kristine’s Actor/Director workshop feeling more confident as an actor. Confident to rely on doing no ‘acting’ at all. We usually learn this at Drama School. Though if it’s been a few years, you learn bad habits again. With Kristine’s experience and intuition, you quickly reach a beautiful realness in scenes. It was fascinating to watch the process and invaluable to participate in. I thoroughly recommend Tamasha’s workshops and look forward to working with Kristine again.”

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