October 19, 2014

Do Theatre Makers Need to be Brilliant Actors?

It’s a question that has bugged me for a few weeks now. Those of you who follow the NORTH programme will have noticed that the NORTH 15 cohort is going to be slightly different to previous years. Camisado Club will not blessed with a younger sibling company, but 4-5 individual actors who will spend their time in the bosom of Northern Stage expanding and polishing their acting skills. It sounds like an amazing opportunity for the region’s budding actors, one I have to admit I am slightly jealous of.
You see, for pretty much all of us who have called ourselves NORTH, our path to theatremaking began with acting. Whether that was taking part in the school play, choosing to take GCSE drama, or being involved in a regional theatre’s participation programme, nearly all of us began with acting as our ambition. One way or another, our paths led us to devising and theatre making. For me, the factors involved were: as a young actor who had trained in the North East, opportunities were few and far between; I felt bewildered by the idea of selling myself as a product; and deep down I think I might be a bit of a control freak and the thought of having more control over exactly what work I am involved in just made so much sense.
Having control over your work is pretty much the crux of theatre making, in my opinion. As a jobbing actor, you are generally so grateful to be offered any work whatsoever that you end up being involved in projects that you find it hard to muster up enthusiasm for. With theatre making you choose a project you want to make and you choose the way it manifests itself, which means you can also adapt the end product of that project to make the best use of your own skills. If you’re brilliant at writing poetry, you can fill your project with as much imagery filled verse as you want. If you’re an amazing saxophonist, you can include a 10 minute sax solo (I can’t guarantee your audience will love it, but you at least have control over it).
You can also choose not to include those things you’re not great at. If you’re inherently tone-deaf, you can choose to omit any musical numbers. If you have two left feet, you don’t have to make a physical dance piece. And if you’re not a confident actor, your project doesn’t need to be a strongly character driven narrative.
All of the above is true. However, it really narrows the kind of work you can produce. Maybe it is decided in your company that the best way to make the point you are passionate about making is through an elaborate dance routine, but none of you can dance. You have to work around it and find another way to make that point. But wouldn’t it be easier and wouldn’t you have a wider arsenal of theatrical weapons to throw at your project if you’d all had the same training as a drama school graduate?
At the same time, placing restrictions on your process can produce more creative solutions to your devising problems. Maybe instead of the dance routine you keep exploring and discover a much more interesting way of making your point? Throughout our devising process for Send More Paper we found that placing rules and restrictions on ourselves as we were writing (for instance write a scene without using the letter ‘e’) produced much more interesting results.
I heard a theatre maker say recently that as long as you can project your voice to the back of the room, you don’t need any actor training. I suppose that’s true, depending on the work you want to make. Theatre can be such a broad spectrum of things that being able to perform a terrific Hamlet or having the ability to reduce an audience to tears with your Eponine doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll make an amazing piece of theatre. But if, like Camisado Club, you want to incorporate what got you into theatre in the first place and create a narrative that is carried by characters, then I think a little bit of voice, movement and acting skill is needed. As an ensemble who plan to make work together for many projects to come, perhaps it is best that we have as many performance skills to hand as possible, so that project by project we have the ability to perform whatever serves the project best.
I suppose my conclusion is that no, depending on the work you make, being a brilliant actor isn’t essential to being an amazing theatre maker, but it can’t hurt – it’s even a very good idea – to have the training anyway.
There are so many miles more of depth that I could go into on this subject, but perhaps I’ll save that for another time. I’d love to hear your thoughts, though. Give us a tweet or a comment if the impulse takes you.

Have a great week,

P.S. We’re still fundraising to take Send More Paper to London. If you happen across a couple of quid down the back of the sofa cushions you could chuck it our way? Find out more here.