Drama training: a skill for life

Posted: 1st March 2019


A valuable Drama Inset.

Training and learning never stops!  Head of Drama, Ms Brown, attended the annual Drama Teacher Conference last week at the Royal National Theatre and learnt from the best!

Ms Brown reports, ‘Theatre director, Katie Mitchell, spoke to a room of Drama Teachers at the National Theatre last week as part of the annual Drama Teacher Conference.  Firstly, Ms Mitchell thanked us for attending the conference during our half terms and doing the important job of inspiring children and young people to use their imaginations and making them happy. She called us working at the “coal-face”. So, from the outset of the session she had the room on-side.

She spoke about her early influences, her father discovering classical music in his 30s and playing it a lot around the house, as well as growing up in the countryside; the light, nature and textures she thought were important to her creative development. Ms Mitchell explained that throughout her career she had always striven to accurately represent the female experience, whether working with plays lit purely by candlelight or high-tech live film theatre.  Her signature style requires a life-like, complex, acting style and so she uses a Stanislavski tool-kit of rehearsal approaches to achieve this outcome with her actors.  Her work is complex because she is interested in exploring the chaotic nature of existence and so following a classical text and tidy narrative structure she finds is unlike life and therefore uninteresting. She fights against the very mannered, vocally-driven falsity of traditional stage acting (she equips her actors with radio mics to overcome the need for projection and declamation, and sometimes puts camera-operators on stage and projects the actors’ faces in close up, to give all those in the house an equal view of the subtleties).

Katie Mitchell

When asked about how she chooses her projects Ms Mitchell answered that she does always choose, but there are parameters.  For example, she will be invited to make a huge play in Berlin, but it must have a well-known title to sell it.  She is allowed full control over the concept, so long as there is the big title to appeal to the audience.  She says that over the years she has become more business-like about her ‘brand’.  She realises that ‘Katie Mitchell’ is associated with work about despair and female deconstruction, and so she plays to that strength. Sometimes she will take on a job for a fee – as a single mother there are responsibilities she needs to meet.

Ms Mitchell was adamant that she would never direct Shakespeare, as it is too wrapped up in a male world.  She did put on Hamlet from Ophelia’s point of view (and Miss Julie from the perspective of the Cook, which meant slashing 60% of the play) but won’t be doing the Bard again.  She felt that the gender politics in Shakespeare were “toxic” and she advised us to frame it if teaching it to young people to avoid encouraging a warped sense of human relationships.

Ms Mitchell was clear that her methods were Stanislavksi’s and not her own, she just made use of his tool-kit. She said that Stanislavski came up with the idea of imagining a fourth wall because he was scared of the audience and it helped him to overcome his fear. He went on the share this method to help other actors and Mitchell felt it was an excellent way to develop high quality acting. When constructing a character, she said it was important to give them a past and a dream of a future, because we all, as human beings, have these things, so it is important to give this some thought.  She said it was interesting that when you applied the rules of life to a text in this way, it exposes weak writing.  She cited Chekov as a “watertight” writer and put it down to his being a doctor as well as a playwright, having access to a multitude of real people for inspiration.

Ms Mitchell outlined her roles and responsibilities as a theatre director.  She explained that she was in charge of ten things: the text, the performers, the concept, the design (set and costume), the lighting, the sound, the music (composer), movement, video and technical aspects and she also ran the creative team.  All, except the last on the list, can be seen on stage. She explained that the actors are only part of the work. There is a limit to what they can communicate and so the tools of sound, make-up and light etc. support them. She was keen to underline that making theatre was scientific and not at all magic.  That anyone could do it.

She knows exactly what she is going to do before she begins rehearsals and does a lot of work before the actors are involved. (Simon Goodwin said the same about his approach in a workshop I attended last year). She has asked all the questions in the text. And answered them.  She has gleaned all the immediate circumstances, decided what has happened between each scene, analysed all the events on stage and developed her concept. To explain what a concept is, she used the example of Sarah Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis, an abstract play with 21 scenes and no characters about clinical depression. Mitchell explained that the problem with this text is avoiding the diminishing nature of the 21 scenes. How can an audience member keep interest with that many? So, her answer, her concept, was to set the play on a woman’s walk to her suicide, so that it built to a progression.  The actor walked on a travellator on stage, and the production used sound to create the changing landscapes until the ultimate death under a train.  There is no mention of a train in the play text.  That idea was Mitchell’s concept and it is this aspect of the job she says is the defining skill of a good director.

Mitchell decides all that has happened in the 24 hours before the time of the beginning of the play, so that the characters’ behaviour is informed by their immediate past. She constructs biographies for all the characters and analyses the play for the events, the changes between two characters, where the change happens and provides this Event List to all cast and creative members and they use this instead of talking in terms of Acts and Scenes. These events help the actors to navigate the text.  Katie feels that it is more important what the characters do rather than what they try to pretend to feel.

When asked about the Dos and Don’ts of being a director, Katie Mitchell said a good director must contain their emotion, must be consistent and relate to each member of the team equally, must behave properly because the rehearsal room is not a policed situation, the culture is unpoliced, so you must listen and not abuse your position of power.  She equated the rehearsal room to a microcosm of society. She asks that her actors are intelligent, precise, flexible, not vain and very good at Stanislavski work. She says one of the most valuable pieces of advice she would give a student who wanted to be a director would be careful use of language.  She says she never uses the words ‘good’ or ‘bad’, because they are judgmental words, she uses ‘clear’ or ‘unclear’, for example, “The fact that your character was cold was unclear”.  This creates a culture where everyone wants to be clear. As an aside, she said she found this tactic help with her parenting too, with her teen daughter, “It was clear that you meant it in that way!”

Katie thought that studying GCSE and A Level Drama is important because the world is changing and those with imagination and creativity will be the ones that thrive in the new age of artificial intelligence.  Drama teaches flexibility and compassion, essential life skills.  The great lesson of theatre as an art form is to teach a quiet form of compassion, this will be more useful that any academic scoring.  She did say that she would encourage young women to be directors and writers, rather than actors because they would have more of the power. (Mel Giedroyc also spoke about the power of writing your own work on her recent visit to the school).

Ben Whishaw

We were treated to a practical demonstration of some of Katie’s rehearsal techniques, and much to our delight, she brought actor Ben Whishaw (Paddington, Bond, A Very British Scandal) onto the stage to work with her.  He was very impressive and we were inspired by how Katie was able to transform his performance with only a few simple instructions. She went on to underline that directing is a craft you can learn, like making a table, it is planned and designed.  Ben said that for him Stanislavski’s techniques are like tools to activate your imagination, “like little gifts.”

We look forward to using these gifts in our teaching here in the St Augustine’s Drama Department to inspire your girls’ imaginations.’

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