"DO.NOT. TRY. TO. BE. GOOD” Louis Goodwin - A Graduate blog
Here I was, back again for more. I had already attended The Performers' Playground two years ago just before getting into drama school and, in large part, credited its weird and fascinating methods for my ‘success’. One year on and coronavirus struck, forcing our classical conservatoire training into the confines of Zoom. I hated it. Sitting in front of my computer day in day out was not making me a better actor and was not a good use of nine thousand pounds. I quickly decided to defer my place, hoping to return to a more normal in-person training the following year. But now what to do with all this free time? I knew exactly where I needed to be so off I went once again into the wonderful world of The Performers' Playground.
The course would be the same and yet wildly different. Instead of just two days a week it was now an intensive five. The fundamental content would be the same (le jeu, neutral mask, half mask, commedia, clown, bouffon) but the way in which it was taught would now be more detailed, more in depth and more expert; these teachers are constantly seeking to develop their own practice and continually updating and refining their own teaching as a result. The work is never quite done, there is always more. We would also be working in a Covid-safe manner this time - negotiating space and sacrificing touch.
“Amateurs imitate, professionals steal” and these teachers are true professionals. All the exercises we do in class are stolen from other Master teachers that Mark and Alice have studied under. The Performers Playground takes some of the best bits of theatre training from around the world and mixes them together into one big hilarious concoction. Week one is all about ‘Le Jeu’ – the game of theatre. We play a lot of games and we have a lot of fun. The room becomes hot with mischief and vibrates with our pleasure. We become silly and free as children. In this state the ensemble of our class is delicately created and these people who I have only known for a few days begin to feel like old friends. This is the power of play. Through the games we explore some fundamental theatre basics – impulse, fixed point, major/minor, complicité.
I’ve covered all this before and am feeling confident, even slightly smug. We send little winks and blow kisses to one another as we charge around the space in glee. “It’s just a game” our teacher reminds us – an important truth all too easily forgotten in the stuffy and serious atmosphere of a drama school. We’ve been joyfully playing this one game for 10 minutes when our teacher proposes that half of us play the game on the stage under the lights while the other half forms an audience. I’m up with the first group and take my place in the wings. The lights come up. Suddenly I’m scared and I feel the fun leave my bones. In its place comes a thumping sense of dread; “Am I good enough? Will I please the teacher? Are they judging me? Do they find me boring?!” I am playing the game now like a good student but I am no longer really playing and I am definitely not having fun. I am pretending to play, I am self-conscious and I am desperately pushing to ‘get it right’. “What happened?” I wonder as I return to my chair. Was it the lights? Was it the audience? The pressure to perform? And who is that little fucker in my head telling me all those horrible things? I could really do without him. We are encouraged to pay detailed attention to that voice in our head, even to give it a name and politely tell it to hush while we are trying to work. "DO.NOT.TRY.TO.BE.GOOD," was the best pre-audition advice I ever received. ‘What do you mean don’t try and be good?! So I should just be bad?’ But I would have done well to remember this during these exercises.
We learn a lot from watching each other play these games on stage. It pays dividends to attend to what it really means to be an audience member. We see what works and what doesn’t, what’s funny and what’s not, what is beautiful and what is ugly. We see who we like and who we don’t like and importantly we start to work out why. When someone enters the stage trying to be good or to be liked or to get it right, as I was, we seize up as an audience. Those who enter the stage in self-consciousness and fear make us deadly uncomfortable. They are heavy and their attention is flowing in the wrong direction – we will never be able to ‘dream around them’ as our teacher puts it. Those who drag on their ideas about how to be funny usually fail. “It’s not about your funny. It’s about your fun”. When we see an actor at ease, playful and light - only then do we as an audience relax and begin to enjoy the show. Only when the actor finds fun to make-believe can the audience suspend their disbelief. These lessons in how-to-exist on stage are invaluable for any student of the theatre. “The theatre doesn’t need your shit ideas. It needs your spirit and your fun”. If I could have one phrase indelibly inscribed on my mind it would be that.
We do yoga, circuit training and breath work at least three times a week. I am reminded that I have only one body and that as an actor I am going to need it. These physical practices give us goals to drive toward and a way of measuring our progress. As the weeks pass I feel fitter, stronger and more robust. Agility, strength, stamina and flexibility all need to be developed and honed by the performer. And beyond that it’s an exercise in discipline and dealing with the uncomfortable. One of the many things that sets the Performers Playground apart from other courses is how the teaching permeates into your personal life. Sometimes this even annoyed me – a voice in my head would cry “I’m only paying you for the bloody course, keep your nose out of my private life!” Mark and Alice set challenges for us to engage in outside of the work. This might be sacrificing something for a week, going out into nature and making fires, getting up earlier every day, writing letters to a future you, going on an ‘artists date’ and a myriad of other explorations. Sometimes I did do the homework, sometimes I didn’t but either way I seemed to discover something new about myself and with each week that passed I was yearning to cultivate better habits. ‘We are what we repeatedly do’ wrote Aristotle, ‘Excellence then is not a virtue but a habit’. One day our teacher comes in wearing a t-shirt that says ‘NOBODY CARES. WORK HARDER.’ It’s only a stupid T-shirt but somehow the whole ethos here inspires me to elevate myself and do better. By the end of week 1 my smugness has all but vanished and I see the long road of self-development stretching out before me; I’ve got my work cut out.
By week 2 we are tiptoeing into the territory of the Neutral Mask. Our teacher tells us that ‘neutral’ is something only to be aimed at – a state that can perhaps be glimpsed momentarily but never really sustained. These neutral masks are training tools – veils for the face, hiding the actor’s expressions and forcing the story to be told through the body alone. These masks are beautiful and the work takes on a mysterious poetic quality. Again, I think most of what I learnt here comes from watching others’ work in the masks. We listen to the body when the face is hidden and it is startling just how loudly the body speaks. We read emotions, situations and thoughts all from the most minute gestures. Our personal physical habits are revealed in full force. It becomes quite clear where our tensions lie and how limited our physical awareness and control really is in the pursuit of ‘neutral’. When it’s my turn to put on the mask I am shocked at how riddled with tension my body becomes. My movement feels clunky and disjointed as if my body were always three steps behind my
mind. I feel trapped inside my own head, peering out at the world through two small holes and having little regard for anything going on below the line of my neck. I take the mask off and return to my chair thinking “Hang on… what did I do with my body?”. I had no idea. I hadn’t paid any attention. Somehow my damn head had tricked me into pretty much forgetting the exercise entirely. Yes, I had gone through the motions but I was operating from the top three millimetres of my talent and my poor body never got a look in. ‘My poor body’… what a peculiar thought. As if the body were the property of my head, like some weird organic machine that I was driving. Suddenly it even seemed bizarre to me to separate head from body in the first place but then I once again caught myself thinking and I had a strong sensation that the activity of thinking was taking place solely in my head. Oh dear, what a pickle! When I tried to pay attention to my body it was the head that was paying the attention and my body was still just some useless zoo animal. When my turn to play came around again I occupied my head with a meditational mantra to try to just let my body get on with the exercise however it wanted. But it didn’t seem to want anything. It just waited for the director of my brain, the fat controller, to chime in with its barking orders: ‘Do this, do that! Be cool, hurry up, get it right!’ Once again the exercise was over before I knew it and I had no idea of the journey my body had been on. Was I really so physically unaware? When would I get out of my own way?
The course is physical from top to bottom. Most decent actor training is. It has to be. It’s about bodies in the space and it’s about Movement (with a capital ‘M’). One side of that coin is obviously about how the body moves through space and time when directed by our own mind – what rhythm do I give myself? Where’s my weight? Where do I lead from? When am I still? – but perhaps the more important half of the equation is to discover how exactly we are moved by others. We throw a lot of balls in the Performers Playground and one (among many) of the lessons is how responsive the body can be. When three juggling balls come flying at you from different directions, you move! There’s no thinking or planning or pre-empting, your body just does it. When I am moved by someone or something else, I am acting in response to something beyond my own skin. I’m in a direct relationship and I don’t have time to get caught in my head – my body just acts. It does it all on its own and very quickly too. This reveals to me that my body is intuitive and intelligent and creative. It has its own spirit and doesn’t need to await orders from my tiny head. I’m physically unaware when I’m stuck in the boring board meetings of my mind. I can get out of my own way by simply and genuinely responding to the ‘other’.
Our teacher introduces the neutral mask exercise of ‘the final farewell’. If I am to avoid the trap of getting stuck in my head, I know that I need to find something to respond to. I have the words of Mary Oliver ringing in my ears as I put on the mask and take my place behind the wing… Something about the soft animal of my body. I breathe. I give myself space. An anxious voice wants to speak up and give his pennies worth but, now that I’ve named him, I’m able to softly tell him ‘hush, not now.’ I invoke my imagination and invite myself to play with the images there. This one will do; my body begins to respond. All I have to do now is stay quiet and let my body find its way. He is much cleverer than I.
“Yeah, it’s okay,” the teacher says when I finish the exercise. “But we need to see more of the actor’s fun to create the space imaginatively”. Believe it or not “Yeah, it’s okay” is a huge compliment. When Mark teaches, he pretends to be his own teacher, Phillipe, who is notoriously cutting and ruthless with his feedback. Mark has taken ownership of this style and wears it well. It’s one of the things that drew me back to the course. It’s the feedback we all need to hear but that few teachers are willing to give. It’s sharp and sometimes brutal, always delivered in good humour and comes from a place of generosity – we get ridiculed in the best possible way. Once you’ve made a fool of yourself in a bizarre exercise, had everyone laugh at your failure and been told by the teacher that what you did was total shit and that if he had a gun he would like to kill you – you start to take yourself much less seriously. You begin to develop a resilience and mental toughness that you didn’t know was possible. We laugh with each other and at each other and finally we laugh at ourselves. Sometimes our pride takes a knock and our ego gets a little bruised but this kind of feedback is a gift. Callouses form over the teachers’ grazing comments and a useful thicker skin starts to build. When you leave the Performers Playground you feel a bit invincible. I know this from last time; it’s one of the reasons I felt so confident auditioning after working with Mark and Alice. There’s nothing anyone can say to me anymore that even compares to the loving-abuse that I made friends with on this course.
When the teacher isn’t taunting us, he’s telling tales about the dribbling journey of water down a mountain side or painting pictures of fire and the paths of feathers flitting through air. These stories are told to spark our imaginations because in a moment we will be taking on the rhythm of one of these elements and allowing it to move our bodies through the space. It’s the classic wanky actor thing of pretending to be a tree – ‘oh look at these poncy thespians thinking they’re a leaf on the wind’ and to the untrained eye it’s just that. But look a little deeper and you’ll see it’s a masterclass in transformation. This is shapeshifting 101. We play a lot with rhythms, textures, colours – embodying them fully, then taking it inward and allowing a residue of that form and substance to sit somewhere within and completely inform our physicality, our breath, our speech, our action. It’s not about what emotions the actor feels (who could give a damn?), it’s about what the audience receive. It’s what our teachers’ teacher likened to the ‘angle of aberration’ among the stars (where one thing appears to be from a certain perspective is not actually where in reality it is) – the audience see one thing, perhaps profound rage and despair, but secretly the actor is playing with the rhythm of the erupting volcano. The actor has great fun playing with these images and so he can remain light and easy and free rather than heavy in his effortful dredging up of real emotions – dragging them onto the stage night after night where they simply do not belong. “You want to be Hamlet?” the teacher asks someone in the class? “Yes” they enthusiastically respond. “You will never be Hamlet you idiot! You may only play at pretending him.” The class chuckles… but this isn’t just word play. I can’t help but draw parallels between this approach and the architecture of magic and illusion. You watch a magician hold up a coin in his right hand, he takes it between the fingertips of his left hand and begins to rub those fingers together until the coin vanishes into thin air. Let’s say you want to learn this beautiful trick - Only an idiot would go home, pick up a coin and sit there rubbing it between his fingers expecting at any moment for it to actually disappear. The student of magic hunts for the secret. He knows there is something at play, a sleight, that the audience never even glimpse. There is ‘effect’ and ‘method’. There is what the audience see happen and then behind that there is what really happens. The same is surely true of
acting. Just because we go to the theatre and see beautiful performances of human beings going on profound emotional journeys doesn’t mean that those actors are really experiencing what the audience perceive them to be experiencing. Magic isn’t real. Neither is acting. That’s why it’s called acting. The actor doesn’t have to run circles around themselves trying to feel things, just like the magician doesn’t have to relentlessly rub copper coins until his fingers are blistered and bloodied. It’s a refreshing way to work in a world where a lot of actors are blindly obsessed with “emotional truth” and fanciful notions of becoming a real deep and serious ‘method actor’. I’m starting to realise more and more just what a load of crap that all is. It seems a selfish way of working and just plain dangerous – anyone who thinks they’ve actually become the character belongs on a psychiatric ward and not in the theatre. I’ve noticed that it’s only really ever male actors who tell these lofty method stories. We hear Hollywood tales of their harrowing journeys of becoming one with their character – the great pains that they put themselves through, exposing themselves to sheer suffering in pursuit of that glistening mirage of ‘truth’. But it’s mostly men who tell these stories and I have a funny feeling that it’s because we are afraid to admit to what the job of acting really is; It is a delicate and sensitive one. It asks you to be vulnerable and soft. It demands that you play as children do. And so there is a great temptation to try to hide this sensitivity behind something tougher; ‘look at me, look how big and strong a man I am. Look how far I have dared to venture, how much I have suffered, see what this character has cost me. I am a warrior. I have boldly fought and once wounded, won’. It strikes me as an egocentric cover up story. A vanity project for sure. We aren’t warriors. It’s a pleasure to do this work, not a battle. This is the theatre and it’s all just a beautiful game. I am immensely grateful for being woken up to this fact.
I could continue to write for hours about the many things I learnt at the Performers Playground but I feel that I have rambled on for far too long already. The best way to understand this work is to go and experience it. If you are reading this because you are thinking about doing the course, then do it. You will be confronted with yourself in the most spectacular way and who knows what you might discover? If you are reading this because you have already done the course, then do it again; the second time round is even more illuminating. I have been inspired by these teachers. Their way of working has become incredibly precious to me. The discoveries I have made under their watchful eyes, a mere handful described above, I will surely hold onto for the rest of my life. But no matter what I think I might’ve learned - the work is never done, there is always more. The Performers Playground is in a league of its own. It is simply too good to miss. I have only just left and I am already planning my return.
Photography by Phil Benbow Photography