The annual STR-Poel Event is a training day for professional actors (and directors) in the early years of their careers. It aims to inspire and inform practitioners in methods and practice for the performance of English classic drama. The event is free to the selected participants.
The 2008 event took place on Friday 28th November, once again at the National Theatre on London's South Bank.
THOSE WHO TOOK PART AND HOW THEY WERE SELECTED
The group comprised 9 women and 8 men. The ages ranged from 24 to 49. The mean age was 30 and the average 29.
The selection process was thorough. Applicants were asked to submit CVs, the names of referees, or those who would verify information about the applicant's career, and they were questioned by phone where information needed clarification. Every application was scrutinised by at least three of the four selectors, all of whom had experience in professional theatre performance, direction and/or training.
The Group who took part: Rachael Butler, Sarah Fortune, Stephanie Lane, Catherine Potter, Emily Sidone, Heather Snaith, Lisa Stuart, Annie Walker, Becky Wright, Giovanni Bienne, Paul Etuka, Paul Joseph, Anil Kumar, Peter McMillan James McNeill, Gregory Smith, Paul Spruce.
WHAT HAPPENED ON THE DAY
The first was given by the actor and author Ben Crystal. Titled: Shakespeare's directions: the silent clues to acting the Bard, its premise was that "Shakespeare's plays are notoriously lacking in stage directions". But Ben questioned: are they? He argued that Shakespeare 'told his actors where to stand, how quickly to speak, and gave them clues on characterisation - but many of these tips are edited out of modern texts. Working from the First Folio, Shakespeare's voice can be revealed'.
Next, the internationally renowned Director of Voice for the RSC, Cicely Berry, ran a workshop on Hearing Shakespeare: how the sound of the language and the imagery convey the world of the play. The group went through a series of exercises aimed to get them (in character) to listen to the play around them and motivate them to use the text to respond, at times literally struggling to speak.
The afternoon sessions took place in the Olivier Theatre, beginning with Filling the Space with the Voice, a workshop with Jeannette Nelson, the Head of Voice at the National Theatre. Using previously learned speeches each participant was given an opportunity to use their voice to act and be heard throughout the auditorium. Interestingly, the session began to reveal constricting physical and mental inhibitions, some induced by participant's attitudes to the location. With great accuracy Jeannette Nelson homed-in on symptoms, often suggesting simple physical changes, enabling the performers to clarify and release both voice and performance.
The final workshop was On Performing Oedipus with the award-winning actress, Clare Higgins. In a warm and sympathetic session she too stressed simplification as a key to performing, in this case, Sophocles on the Olivier stage. As the participants performed short scenes she showed how submitting to the text, controlling and limiting movement and gesture gave performances both strength and audience attention.
HOW THE GROUP RATED IT
The formal part of the day ended with a relaxed Feedback Session. Over refreshments the participants gave valuable comment on the usefulness of the day and other positive suggestions which will help shape the 2009 Event. A few days later the group was asked specific questions about the day. These extracts from their replies show that they still felt very positive about their experience.
A PRESS COMMENT (30th November, 2008)
Who's Afraid of the Big Space and the Classic Text?
On Friday afternoon in the Olivier Theatre, I watched twenty (mainly) young actors turn from underpowered performers, hesitant in approaching verse and intimidated by a large theatre, discover energy, articulacy and confidence in commanding the space. This was the 2008 'Poel Event,' run by the Society for Theatre Research in association with the National Theatre.
After starting the day looking at the directions to physical performance embodied in Shakespeare's text with actor Ben Crystal (author of Shakespeare on Toast, which spells them out), they had spent a rigorous hour and a half working on speaking the verse with the inspirational Cicely Berry before being faced with challenges of the Olivier stage. There, performing individual short speeches, house voice expert Jeanette Nelson skilfully diagnosed their weaknesses and set about correcting them as they learned the demands of a theatre much larger than they had previously experienced. Finally, Clare Higgins conducted a masterclass using passages from Oedipus, guiding them not only in interpretation but on responding to the form of the theatre.
It was fascinating to watch individuals gaining comprehension and getting the message. Had this been an audition there was hardly anyone I heard in the morning who would even have got a call-back, but by the end of the day the difference was amazing. Why wasn't that ability there to start with? I find it difficult to believe claims that these things weren't taught at drama school. Surely that can't be true: perhaps they weren't then ready to absorb them? What is clear is that this was an unrivalled opportunity. Most participants had worked almost entirely in small theatres and for the camera, with no experience of larger spaces. Old skills, gained unconsciously by osmosis in repertory and touring, like tuning your performance to a particular auditorium, depend on experiences they have never had.
It was great to see these performers energised and excited by their experience. That one day can make such a difference is amazing. Its success is clear evidence that the STR was right to change its Poel commemoration from a performance with teams from drama school presenting scenes from the early-modern repertoire to this practical help for working professionals. It is all about passing on skills, discovering how to communicate with an audience, even in the largest space. Long may the 'Poel Event' go on helping actors and by extension every theatregoer.
STR News Archive
24th January 2009