A review of Patsy Rodenburg’s Masterclass at 16th Street Actors Studio.
As actors we sometimes want to fast track the process. We’re passionate, and all we want is to get out there and do it already. But alas, acting is a craft, and we are always, always learning. After recently working with Patsy Rodenburg, a master voice and Shakespeare teacher, I am reminded of just how much work actors need to do, in order to honour any piece of great writing. As she says, you wouldn’t expect to be an elite athlete or musician, without hours of rigorous training and daily work, so why should that be any different for an actor?
It can be tempting to be lazy as an actor. It’s easy, and safer, to rely on the tricks and habits that have served you in your career so far. The problem is that these tricks often circumvent a deeper, and simpler truth. A truth that is manifested in all great writing, especially Shakespeare, and all we have to do is meet that text with generosity and ambition.
Out of respect for Patsy’s work, I won’t be able to share all my notes from our work together, but the cornerstone is simple: be present. Follow each word and thought to the very end, and never give up on the words!
A common trap for actors is to think they need to be cool/interesting/sexy. They feel they have to colour the language with some unique flavour. This is often because we’re used to working with terrible writing. The problem is when we add all these layers to a Shakespearean monologue, it falls apart. We lose the sense and the richness that is already there.
During the workshop Patsy worked with a number of actors, some whom were very experienced. It was fascinating to see how much further and deeper even actors of this calibre could go. How much we can excavate the text and really give our words to the other actor.
“We can’t expect people to listen to us, unless we reach them”.
That isn’t just about speaking louder. In fact, shouting is a very inefficient and ineffective way of communicating with another human, just as whispering is. Instead, it is about simply being present with your ensemble, and the audience. That requires you to be open and willing to reveal yourself, and this often puts us in a very vulnerable place. A lot of Patsy’s work is about getting comfortable with working from this space. And as a result, she brings out heightened, nuanced and more connected work from her students.
For many, watching theatre has become a chore. We are no longer drawn to theatre in the way we were in Ancient Greece. We love the immediacy of sport, but only rarely find that palpable energy in the theatre. She credits this largely to a lack of presence on stage. Actors who are either hiding, internalising, or performing only for themselves, or actors who are pushing, and ‘acting their pants off’.
Pushing is one of my favourite traps. I guess like most actors there is a part of me (perhaps a significant part) that wants to be liked. And so I push to show how funny, dramatic or good I am. The ironic thing is that the more we push the less we connect, and the less we connect, the more the audience switches off.
An actor’s job is to send thoughts and ideas to an audience, and without an authentic, powerful and free voice, we cannot possibly expect them to understand.
So, with all that delicious wisdom behind us, what can you do to improve your voice and presence as actors?
- Body – your body is all you have to express yourself, so take care of it. Tension in the body prevents us from connecting, and connecting is our job. As actors, being physically fit, is just as important as being mentally fit. If you have any desire at becoming a Lead actor, you’re going to need to be nimble, flexible, grounded and connected (like a Ninja). Build your own routine, and work on it Every. Single. Day. Sensei.
- Breath – your breath is your fuel, and without proper breath support, doing the simplest of scenes or monologues as an actor, becomes infinitely harder. Work daily at breathing to full capacity, you’d be surprised at the habits and tensions which prevent us from doing so. And you’ll find your voice has more power behind it, simply due to more oxygen in your lungs.
- Voice – speak text everyday. Not just quietly in bed before you sleep (oops, guilty) but on your feet, embodying the words, with passion and energy. Work on a variety of different pieces, well-known classics, to unusual contemporary’s. Stretch yourself, and keep stretching yourself, you’ll be a better actor for it.
- Experience – read, watch, listen. It’s simple really, garnering these second hand experiences, stretching your imagination and being present for everyday life makes you a better human, and therefore a better actor.
- Practice – we are so incredibly lucky to have this little thing we call, Education. Get along to as many courses and classes as you possibly can, soak up all that knowledge and continue to get up, and do the work.
Patsy Rodenburg Interview
As much as we try to explain techniques and advice in our articles, at the end of the day, much of acting work is learnt by simply doing. Patsy Rodenburg has certainly raised the bar for us – there is so much work we can do as actors to connect body, breath and voice, before we even think about speaking.
If you can get ever get along to a Patsy Rodenburg masterclass, do it!