When I was at school, doing a Drama A Level the drama teacher I knew and loved had to leave. He was replaced by a man who’s arrival coincided with some intensely difficult personal circumstances and I struggled to maintain the involvement and success I’d enjoyed in drama so far. My new drama teacher ‘Mr H’ found me hard work, chippy and opinionated. I probably was a bit, but I didn’t mean to be, I just felt he couldn’t see the real me. That was probably because I wasn’t showing him…(and I was a teenager in a very bad place).
After a particularly angry exchange, he quietly said “You’ll come to nothing”. Not even in Drama, just everything. Nothing. Stated as as fact.
After school that day I went to my Youth Theatre Director’s house to work on a monologue for a Drama School audition. His name was Geoff and he was ace. Grey haired and deep lines, proper kind eyes. His wife made us hot chocolate and one of his daughter’s – R – sat and did her homework in the corner. The monologue was one I’d been working on for a while and this was a final session to polish it.
We started the session and suddenly I couldn’t do it, I tried and tried and got worse and worse. Geoff stopped me, told me to have a break and we sat for a while staring out of his big picture window onto the street, sipping hot chocolate and watching strangers walk by. I genuinely felt that that was that, Mr H was right, I was already becoming nothing. To my horror I started crying and I couldn’t stop (I barely ever cried in those days) – after a while I told Geoff what Mr H had said, I also told him what was happening at home.
He didn’t respond for ages, I assumed he was trying to find the (gentler) words to tell me he agreed with Mr H and that my personal life was not for sharing. I knew I should go but I didn’t know how to leave. Someone stared in his window and Geoff waved at them. They looked embarrassed and hurried on.
Eventually he said ‘Right, let’s try again. And this time stop acting. Stay where you are, sat on the sofa, and tell me what your character has to tell me’.
I did what he said, and it worked. I let the words speak for themselves and Geoff’s daughter said ‘bloody hell, that was good’ – and Geoff said ‘don’t swear R’ and R said ‘bloody isn’t swearing’.
I went home and I did it again in my room and then I did it for Dad who got emotional – so I knew I’d got it right as he was a farmer and not known for choking up unless it was about a cow.
Geoff was the one who made it impossible for me to do anything other than work in theatre and spend the lion’s share of that time training young actors. He helped me to understand the power of slipping from believing that something is completely beyond you to knowing you have it in your hand. Even writing this is making me a bit emotional – and I say that as a farmer’s daughter and there’s not a cow in sight.
So, in case it helps you, here are the things that Geoff taught me that I have carried with me ever since:
- Don’t ‘act’.
- A convincing performance is not about tortuous psychological struggle but about engaging in the story, moment by moment.
- The success of your performance is measured in how you are affecting those around you – the other actors and the audience.
- Understand where negativity (yours, as an actor) comes from (especially if it’s from you) and learn what to do with it.
- Seek out the good people and hold on to them by being one of the good people.
- Listen to those you trust and act on what makes you feel good.
- Listen to those that need you and act on what makes them feel good.
- Share your experience with as many people as you think need to hear it.
- Tell the people who can help you about the things that are stopping you moving forwards.
- Don’t overthink. Never overthink.
- Get up and do it again. In the moment, later, alone, with people. Repeat.
- Remember ‘bloody’ is swearing.
- Drink only really good hot chocolate
- If someone stares in your window, wave.
The last one might be a metaphor. Depends on how pretentious you think I am.