Tag Archives: Directing

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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February Directors’ Course at Actors Centre with Kristine Landon-Smith

Ash Bhalla – Participant Director

I think performance is the most essential element of any film and I’ve studied a number of approaches to “working with actors” that amounted to transposing a preconceived reality onto the actor. For the past two days I have seen performances go from scratch to compelling scenes in minutes by enabling actors to do what they love: create an organic reality.

In a field loaded with various techniques, jargon and methods it is a relief to finally concentrate on a human being and trust that person to show you the truth of the scene, rather than making a decision about what the script requires and then asking the actor to “recreate” that truth.

With the actor-centered approach the actors play the scene, the scene doesn’t tell them what to play.

Guillaume Laroche – Participant Director

It all started with a desire to push myself where I’d never been before in a professional way – Directing. I’d shot a few videos and trailers and was a keen writer with a couple of projects in the pipeline but I had no way to know – Am I capable of this? Do I have the right approach? Can I communicate with actors the way I like to be spoken to when I’m acting.

Yes, I come from an actor’s background and I feel this week helped me tremendously and confirmed what I suspected: in my view, being an actor really helps to understand the process of working with actors. Sounds obvious but I needed confirmation. So, on the first day, after a delightful warm-up, we were thrown in the deep end and I found that switching from actor to director demanded a sort of mindset I wasn’t accustomed to…after five days, the switch was clearly established thanks to the hands on practice and work we did with Kris but also thanks to the wonderful set of actors she invited to the workshop to be “played” with.

The most important point that came out of the week for me was TRUST! Trust yourself, trust your process but mainly and without fail, trust your actors. Nurtured and guided well, actors prove to be magnificent, and with clear communication, the trust gained allows you, the director and them, the actors, to speak and act freely thus bringing life where there was only a text before. It’s pure magic! A well thought out warm-up is key to that and everyday this week, directors took charge of the warm-up in turn to deliver the best introduction to the day, i.e actors and directors alike joined in a very positive and ready to work attitude.

I also learned to talk less (which is a big deal for me) and let the actors find their way. Once again it all comes down to trust, trusting them to understand your vision almost instinctively and rise to the task with more assurance and deliver their best work.

Many of the actors left each day saying kind words or giving me a hug and this, to me, was the best feeling, proof that I did a good job with them more than anything else, learning to let them BE and PLAY, giving them my undivided attention. I loved the work, I loved the process Kris guided us through, I loved the participants and the actors and most of all, I loved what I was doing!

I left on Friday night feeling whole, in the moment, I felt like a director!

Tim Cowbury – Participant Director

Wednesday felt like a little turning point in the week for me. I’d been learning a lot and scribbling notes furiously all the way, but feeling very much like a hapless beginner, trying to second guess the master (and mostly not succeeding). I’d been thrown into the directing hot-seat on Monday and not managed to get anywhere with the poor actor who was trying to do a monologue from King Lear and had me interfering (directing). Having not prepared and not being familiar with the actor’s text, I think I panicked, felt I had to say something, anything, (and ohmigod there’s not much time!) and chucked a mostly random set of instructions (obstructions?) at her. We hadn’t reached any kind of end point when we had to show the monologue to the group. Myself and the actor sat tense and still in chairs on stage while she delivered the lines ‘at’ me and I tried to smile encouragingly at her. It wasn’t exactly an electrifying event. Afterwards it took Kristine ten minutes to completely free the text, the actor up, instigating an improvisation in Punjabi with another actor (rather than a frozen-with-fear me) the target of the actor’s words. The situation allowed the actors to play and also to be versions of themselves: they acted instinctively and when the text was brought back in, it was imbued with this sense of fun, play but also – most crucially – honesty. The difference between seeing an ‘actor’ as you watch, doing ‘acting’ to just seeing a real person, speaking, being.

This was of course an important lesson for someone trying to get a grasp of a director’s role. In the moment I felt like some sort of ridiculously simple magic had been done, and I was spending the week working out how to do the tricks, so I could learn to do what Kristine did with the Punjabi impro. But I also had lots of questions over whether this approach was transferable to different kinds of scenes. Or to live performance that doesn’t really contain ‘scenes’. The theatre that I make tends to mess around with or completely ignore psychological realism. I wanted to see how the use of improvisation and focus on creating something ‘believable’ would translate onto a very different style or mode of theatre. So on Wednesday I had my second go at directing, and chose to work with a scene from Caryl Churchill’s completely brilliant but completely and utterly absurd Far Away.

The actors I worked with were baffled when we first read the scene (it’s hard to get your head around even if you read the whole play!). They thought it was weird and had no idea what their ‘characters’ were on about. Interestingly, I think the actors were also quite baffled about these things even when we finished working, and baffled but pleasantly surprised after we’d shown the scene to the group. We managed to work with what was essentially a lack of or gap in understanding: we didn’t discuss or explore directly the meaning of this strange text, we didn’t talk about the characters (I banned the word) or really the fictional situation they were in, the world of the play. Instead we played some simple impro games based on a mixture of my ideas and the actor’s comments (‘it’s like they’ve both been smoking something but they’ve definitely smoked the same thing’ led to an impro of stoned people using repetitive language). We went back to the text once or twice, which felt risky, but on reflection was well-judged, giving the actors a sense of how the games we played might relate to the scene, without focusing on the scene really at all. If we had focused on the scene, tried to unpick it too much, I think we’d have ended up trying to make decisions about it. The strength of the work we did was that we didn’t make decisions about the text.

Because the work we did was really light, not consciously analytic  not geared towards the actors having a clear sense of the fictional people they were stepping inside the skin of, it felt like the scene might be a shambles. How could people who haven’t made sense, created internal motivations for, what they’re saying, convey any meaning or reality to the audience? It seemed like I’d be making matters worse when I imposed a new experiment on the actors for the running of the scene in front of the group, asking them to sit at a table, facing front, looking out at the audience as much as possible, and do it as if they were newsreaders about to go on air. But given the scant amount of time we’d had to work, the scene played very well, was believable: not actors acting, but people speaking, being. There was space for the audience to impose their own meaning; if the actors had made lots of choices and tried to ‘play’ the scene a certain way, with intentions and meanings to certain lines, this space wouldn’t have been there. Most interestingly for me, I’d deliberately chosen a text that was very different from anything else we’d seen that week, and I think from the sort of texts, styles, Kristine works with. I was testing her process in relation to mine, expecting to find that much of it didn’t translate. But in this case, with me thinking critically, more sensitive to what was in front of me, rather than grasping at straws as I had on Monday, a process geared towards one style of work (and actor/actor training?) worked surprisingly well in a quite different context.

Kati Francis – Participant Director

So amazing to see a master at work! Kristine is a tour de force as she skilfully, efficiently and energetically crafts her art…I felt for a lot of the week as if I was stumbling through a dark but beautiful forest that Kristine knew all the secret pathways to! She would constantly, generously point them out to me…I was able to tell at least when I was off track, but learning how to navigate through the undergrowth was often bewildering and a little frustrating- particularly when guided by someone who does it so effortlessly!

My objective for the week was to put aside all of my own practice as a director and to try on Kristine’s shoes for a while…this was very exposing as I purposefully refused to fall back on my own techniques…although this did not help my actors have faith in me, it really helped me to unearth her methodology. As a devised physical theatre practitioner, working outside of psychological realism I was a little at sea…usually working from a stylistic premise or a concept. The placing of the actors before text- working with what they brought to the space- was not a novelty for me- but working with that idea in Kristine’s way was! I stumbled, I flailed, I laughed, I had a crisis of confidence- I glimpsed success a few times and then I began to see how I could take this back into my own world…

After some reflection I can say that it was great to be so immersed in someone else’s process for a while and try out their style of work…it helped me to understand the psychology of the performer- what makes them tick- the need to constantly feed them- to keep them safe and secure in your directorial embrace whilst inspiring them to make their own creative leaps. A lot comes down to trust- trusting your own vision/ instinct/ voice/ idea…but also trusting the performers- what they can bring- what they have to offer: give them too much- tell them what you want and they will feel redundant and bored, give them too little- and they will exhaust themselves trying multiple options- unsure of what is working, feeling despondent about their performance and unmotivated to create material/ believe in what they are doing… offer them a seed- highlight the truth within the situation that they are playing- draw out their strengths so that they can feel confident enough to grow what they are doing from pastel hues to vibrant colours, reflect back the essence of the scene that they have found through relaxed, honest and engaged play- a generous offering of themselves, and you will produce compelling theatre.

Daniel Gentely- Participant Director

I came to The Actors Centre with an open mind and not knowing too much about what the week had in store.
After the first day it was clear that the directors involved were all from varied backgrounds and different theatre/film practices.

The first thing that stood out for me was how to create a group energy in the rehearsal space. I am an actor and have been in many rehearsals and simply forgot about how to warm a room up (or a good director can use the warm up to drive the week). This is something that when done well can create a energy and atmosphere that feeds through a company and creates a positive attitude and feel for your rehearsal.

Freeing the actor, relaxing the actor and giving them time to breath. This gives the company freedom to bring their wonderful ideas and interpretation to the rehearsal process. It is one of the first things that I latched on to and clearly made me realise what a good director can do ( as opposed to a director that imposes their vision form the off, this restricts and suffocates). The director gives the actor space and time to create and share their interpretation of the text. This organic process is a natural and positive practice that must be applied to the rehearsal process which creates the shared experience.

Working with a empty space or a restricted space. Towards the end of the week it became apparent that the actor can be restricted by the space you give them to work in. I found this section of the week really interesting. Creating an artistic environment for the actors to ‘play in’ is key to making the scene work. It was really easy for me to stick a table and chair centre stage and say ‘there you go, that is your room’. When questioned about this I simply punched myself in the head and realised how I cramped and suffocated the playing space. Such simple and basic know-hows are key to giving the actors a space that you WANT to ‘play in’, it enhances creativity.

All in all, the week was tough and exposing but also a real reminder that the simple things are sometimes hard to remember but once they are logged and stored you can access them and use for everyone’s benefit.

As a director you must be clear and make it evident from day one that you have a confident and clear working practice/ vision that will create a artistic atmosphere which encourages creativity.

I hope that makes sense and does not make me look a little mad. I think the key thing for me is Don’t clutter and keep it simple!

Anshu Srivastava – Participant Director

In May last year I began to imagine a new kind of work for myself that would be very artistic, generative, collaborative and pleasurable. The idea of becoming a director in the theatre immediately sprang from these first musings and last week I had the wonderful opportunity to take a major step forwards when I participated in the Tamasha week-long directors workshop.

Having attended several of Kristine’s actor masterclasses last year, as an observer, I had a pretty good idea of what to expect in terms of her approach and practice, but this time I would be working directly with the actors myself and here I had no idea what to expect… this was going to be all new.

During the first half of the week I was all caught up with ideas. I think due to my complete unfamiliarity with this kind of work, I was feeling pretty exposed and so I was kind of clutching at tactics, trying this or that idea that I had seen other people use to good effect, rather than explore my own capacity to play well; rather than trust my own voice. Some of these ‘moves’ worked better than others, as they were not entirely devoid of instinct, but they were a bit thin and couldn’t really sustain and nourish the actors enough.

The anxiety that surrounded these first days meant that I was sometimes zoning out and kind of freezing and flopping. The great thing was that I could feed these observations back into the group discussions and take encouragement from Kristine’s feedback and guidance. The feelings were never really catastrophic, I was enjoying myself too much, but they were inhibiting me from being good.

With these few flops under my belt, I began to relax and communicate more naturally and fluidly. I started zoning in and was able to listen and see more of what the actors were giving me and communicate back with more precision and simplicity.

The last two days went well, I really enjoyed the process of working one on one with the actors and together we produced some very nice work. Daily, I was blown away by the quality and commitment of the actors and my fellow directors. It was a real pleasure to learn and create through our respective and collective experiences. Kristine is an incredible teacher and constant source of inspiration and I thank her for her generous and straightforward guidance.

I’m now really looking forward to the next steps.


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