Wednesday, 27 March 2013

To Act...the Truth?

Genevieve's third blog from her tour of Translations. She is now in Dublin and we are off to see her tomorrow. In the meantime...

It's Week Three now of this tour of 'Translations', or Week Six if you count the rehearsal process of being locked down in the studio in the Millennium Forum, Derry. We are now in Dublin, performing at one of its most historic, prided theatres, the Gaiety.

Tiredness overwashes me now; a permanent slumber where I cannot tell half the time whether I am sleeping or awake, except when I am live on stage in front of a full-out audience each night. Mid-afternoon matinees, evening performances that run on until close to midnight, the pressure to perform and maintain character, energy, the soul of the play, the big picture, consistency - we are all high wired to keep small clogs in our brain ticking over steadfastly whilst our bodies disintegrate from the sheer energy asked of us. Small clogs that get tweaked again and again when we adjust to new spaces, new auditoriums to project voices, technical apparatus, cultures, cities which all ask something different of this crew and cast of 'Translations' to breathe new life into the play.

I mentioned to a few of you that I had the honour and privilege to meet the playwright of 'Translations' Brian Friel during the first week of tour. Brian Friel, only considered one of the greatest living playwrights of this century. Those standard cliches - "spine-chilling", "quaking in my boots", "mouth-dropping" don't even begin to sum up that unexpected moment of sheer delight and clarity when you are congratulated by the man himself for producing a beautiful performance. The stoic but shaky handgrip, we giggled (can an old man be described as giggling?) over our equally appalling lack of hearing and compared our hearing aids. An unavoidable constant blush (mine). It was a moment when I felt very blessed to be alive.

Last night, the President of Ireland - Michael Higgins, came to visit the show. And we were all asked to stay behind back stage after the performance. Having not grown up in Ireland, this didn't immediately dawn upon me as hugely significant - "What is he, like, is he the equivalent of the Prime Minister?"

"No, he's more like the Queen."

The realisation that I was meeting someone considered royalty was quite a shock and there was suddenly this sense of trepidation about that night's performance.

That night's performance was a success - if it's fair to base it upon the volume of the audience's reactions and applause and we all stood in the wings, waiting for the screen to come down and for the President of Ireland to join us on stage with his entourage. Cameras flashing, zany grins, a mirror image projected overawedness whilst inner me is battled with the exhausting duo of euphoria and tiredness.

Actors all describe acting differently, but, on a simple, mainstream level, one could consider it to be the ability to manifest emotions and actions which are not real. This fascinates me, because in my eyes it seems a closer definition to the talent of artifice.

For me, acting is bringing life to a character by connecting with them in a way that makes it true for both you and for the part you play. It is the opposite of artifice. For me, the depth of a performance and the ability for the audience to connect to you, comes from it being truth. You are Sarah and Sarah is you. You are not pretending to be Sarah. You are, quite simply, her. In other words, acting is not false.

But after seventeen shows with another twenty five or so to go, it's very difficult to maintain that sense of realism without altering your 'natural' reactions. Otherwise the performance becomes stale and unconvincing - for the audience and actors alike.

One only needs to look at the etymology of the word "act" - which derives from the Latin word Actus - "an impulseand Agere - "to do, stir up", from the root Ag "to draw out, to move" to see the truth in this.

Therefore, it doesn't seem surprising that we have to draw on a lot of inner strength to continue to react authentically to the same piece each night. That the real task that lies behind an actor is to trust themselves to submit to the unpredictable and yet stay intrinsic to the character. To be true to their real natures and not submit to the histrionics of performance. To simply be.

"Simplicity is beauty and beauty is simplicity, nothing more, nothing less" Oscar Wilde 

It does seem ironic, as an actress, that I find myself agreeing with Mr Oscar Wilde.

Genevieve in rehearsal with the cast and director, Adrian Dunbar.

Saturday, 23 March 2013

On The Road

This is Genevieve's second blog from her tour with Translations. The play has had great reviews so far and she is really enjoying the acting and the adventure of it all. 

"And we're off! Now we're really started, nothing will stop you now, nothing in the wide world." (Manus to Sarah, 'Translations')

Last week, I talked about the big step into the unknown. We kicked off with opening night in Derry last Wednesday and so far, we've been blessed with good reviews. That frightening (and ultimately unavoidable) travel onto stage last week has so far reaped wonderful things. The adrenaline which keeps me awake at night, the buzz and energy one constantly feeds off from the audience, the need to keep a straight face when the audience erupts in laughter, the hugs backstage, the curtain call, the frantic and harried concentration required at a constant pace morning, afternoon and evening. It's all a massive massive headrush. It's addictive and when at the height of a rollercoaster, you want to hold onto every sensation and thrill for as long as you possibly can.

Not every actor feels this way. And certainly some of the more established actors I have the privilege to be surrounded by restrain from emoting quite on this scale. It's finding a balance between bringing the energy to the performance and galloping a horse at full pace until it runs out of steam. It's holding a little part of yourself back from becoming bosom buddies with every member of cast and crew. It's picking and choosing your moments, time with the director, feeling your way slowly around difficult parts of the script. Pitching your voice at 80% not blasting away at 100% full volume. The former seems far more sensible than the latter. And it's a learning curve I'm benefiting from - observing the old and the new. But there's this unavoidable anarchy that you simply have to throw yourself into when you go on your first professional tour, drinking (not literally) in every fiber of existence, a zest for new places and new experiences. Forgive me for sounding naff...but it is what it is and I am antithetic to avoid it whilst it's here. 

So now we're in Cork. Cork is a strange place, known as the 'rebel city' and it shows - a bizarre confluence of buildings from every historical period one can name, suggesting a resistance to change meant no singular trend or influence ever made a permanent mark on this city. Narrow Victorian cobblestone streets, Georgian townhouses mixed with medieval Cathedrals and startlingly bright modern shops and restaurants pasted along the River Lee. A hodgepodge which resonates with a strange harmony, and one which Corkonians take a peculiar pride in. 

I berated myself slightly when I left Derry that I had not really made much effort to explore its culture - the museums, galleries, the city walls. But when I was sitting on the train, I realised that I had experienced it in its best and truest essence - simply by sitting in the cafes, walking around, taking that moment to just stop and breathe - take it all in. I am loathe to try and describe a place in its entirety because in my opinion museums, galleries, art, writings can only ever bring to life one aspect, one experience of a place. No matter how we try to bring it together, the sum of all parts can never truly be expressed. 

The essence of a place, an experience, is one I try to hold onto. I have no talent for remembering best friend at school has this incredible gift of recollecting daft ideas, embarrassing episodes from the days we were young and I often envy her this talent to repeat words and stories verbatim. But I cherish this staying power of essence, scents and perfumes that I can constantly draw on for comfort and motivation when life feels rather cold and bleak. 

I'm a stranger in this eclectic city...and yes, I am surrounded by fantastic people - cast and crew and I am riding that rollercoaster with full steam but I can't but help missing the familiarity of home. Home comforts, family. Those essences so familiar and repeated forward and backwards, inside and out all of our lives. The road can be a lonely place and I guess that's why people clamour for routines and stability, the same social circles. Change is to many, a frightening thing. Home is a safe place. 

On the road, I treasure the opportunity to reflect on home, family and friends and how much they all mean to me. Sometimes one can't see a good thing even when it's staring at you in the face. And a few hundred miles away, on tour with 'Translations' - I am blessed with the best of both worlds - knowing where my heart belongs and living my dream. And I will not shy away from immersing myself in the experience.

"I took the road less travelled by and that has made all the difference" (Robert Frost) 

Friday, 22 March 2013

The Rituals of Opening Night

This is a guest blog by daughter number 1, Genevieve, who is currently on tour with the Brian Friel play, Translations. She wrote this blog just before her opening night in Derry. The play is touring in Ireland, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales and is her first stage play, having appeared in a number of television dramas, comedies and short films. 

Tonight is opening night for Brian Friel's Translations directed by Adrian Dunbar at the Millennium Forum, Derry. Playing the part of Sarah, this is the first time I have stepped on stage in front of a live audience in ten years.

Building nerves contained only by a combination of caffeine, Pink Floyd and hiding myself away in the dressing room. A renewed focus on that book I was meant to finish a year ago.

A rather bespectacled, spotty teenager at the time, school plays were all about popularity, glamour and whose embarrassing parents were going to be sitting in the front row. The vociferous grandma with the noisy hearing aid, the young mother with the bawling baby who whispers apologies but still doesn't leave the hall, those annoying prepubescent girls from Year 9, the bright lights, the huddle in the common room/dressing room teamed with a high five, the shushed giggles, the ridiculous amounts of make up - a teenager's makeup AND with the dramatic pat of stage makeup and you can just begin to imagine the carnage. You know, as well as I do, that the small, awkward stage at the local secondary school is as big and overwhelming to a small pupil as the auditorium I am stepping out onto tonight. No matter how big or small, old or young, amateur or professional, it feels like the real thing.

Some of you will remember me talking about my love for acting in the blog I wrote for the BBC back in 2010. That hasn't changed - the standing in front of a camera, gripped by a sense of character and lifted by this transformation of the script into a real life entity - what a privilege to be alive and here in this moment! But somehow launching my theatre career after all this time has created a stumbling block for me. I am crippled once more with the fright and insecurity that I encountered ten years ago.

Deafness and an aspiring actress doth not make a happy conjugation. It was my drama teacher encouraging me to audition for those lead roles every year in the school play. Every year I took that leap of faith that yes, I was a good actress, I understood the part, I learnt the lines, I practiced my diction with my speech therapist, with my mother, in front of the mirror. And yet, time and time again, I was clapping with joy in school assembly for my best friends who got those parts - happy for them but yet crippled with insecurity and dejection that it never came right for me. Not really understanding why. And there was only ever one reason that came to the fore, in harsh words echoed by my drama teacher (why so late?) - my deafness. I can't speak clearly enough for the audience to hear me. After all, who wants to hear a blocked, clanging nasal voice painfully reciting lines across the stage? I can understand that.

And there was the solution - go to university, get a degree, aspire for a good job and build up the pennies. Pay off my student debts, find a lovely boyfriend, move into a house, get married, have children and live a happy, happy life. Nothing wrong with that.

Recently I've been thinking about fate. And whether fate turns a hand when you are unsure of the way. If that's the case, then the opportunity that came to be when I was plucked out of obscurity, sitting in a classroom in Bermondsey to the lead role of Amelia in 'The Silence' - that's a big tell. And lately, when I've been doubting whether this was the still right thing to do, with roles far and few, this part seemed to land on my doorstop. And that only brings me to the conclusion that I was meant to be an actress, to keep working viciously at tuning and retuning my voice for the past three years so that when I step on stage tonight - it's finally right, and I'm right there with it.

So...deep breath - it's time to go on. And when the lights in the auditorium fade out, it won't be in the school hall, camped out in my rabbit outfit waiting for the cue to scamper on and scamper off with a whisker here and there (yes I was 17 years old). It will be my time to stand up straight with my head held up high and march onto that stage into the space where I was born to be. 

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Running with Alan

I wrote this in 2009. This was one of the most moving experiences I have had since I became involved in raising funds for people with dementia and their carers. I have been thinking about this special day and I know that Alan is no longer with us but on that day, this man whose condition had robbed him of his ability to communicate through speech, was absolutely brilliant. He challenged all my perceptions about people with dementia and, if you read this, I hope it will challenge yours too.

It was a lovely summer’s day – light breeze, warm sun, just a few pale clouds scudding across the blue – a perfect day for running the Seven Bridges from Studley Roger and through the Deer Park at Fountains Abbey near Ripon. On a normal day, I would run alone with my i-pod playing, trying to maintain a steady pace and waiting for the reward of the endorphins kicking in at the end. But this was not a normal day. This afternoon I was meeting John who works for the local Alzheimer’s Society, and Alan, who has run marathons in New York and London as well as a host of other races at a seriously competitive level but who now in his mid-sixties has Alzheimer’s.  

John greeted me warmly. I had met John before – he is one of a rare breed that makes caring for others and giving up his time seem like the best job in the world. John had told me some time ago that he ran regularly with Alan and that single thought challenged so many preconceived ideas about dementia that I pleaded to be allowed to join them on one of their regular runs.

Alan was obviously wary of this intrusion into his established routine with John. It would not be safe for Alan to run without John by his side and he genuinely relishes this opportunity to put on his running vest and shoes and recapture the buzz of running. If you are not a runner, this may sound an unlikely concept but, trust me, running is addictive.

Introductions were made and we set off up the track, walking briskly to warm up muscles. Then John remembered that he had wanted to capture our run on film and shot back to the car to get his camera. Instantly, Alan suggested sprinting ahead to give John a chase to catch us. His wicked sense of humour was infectious and though I could not easily understand every word, his plan was brilliant and we set off at a brisk pace.  Of course, we let John catch us, but by then we were laughing together and a connection had been made. We trusted each other and were friends.

Across the fields and through the woods and Deer Park, sometimes walking but mostly running with occasional pauses to admire the remarkably large trout in the stream or the dappled woodland, we chatted – all three of us – about the scenery and the run and just about the joy of being out on such a perfect day. Alan had such a twinkle in his eye and sometimes he and I ran ahead, hand in hand laughing while John took less than flattering photographs from behind.

The last part of the run is down the straight road from St Mary’s Church to the park gates. The road runs gently down hill in an absolutely straight line – it begs you to race it. We started slowly, then Alan kicked off. He changed gear from a steady jog to a sprint with John keeping up easily and me – well, hopelessly outpaced. Alan’s confidence and sense of belonging as a runner were palpable – he was, as sports commentators sometimes say, ‘in the zone’. 

At the gates, we had to slow down to cross the cattle grids. Alan strode across and John remarked to me how fantastic it was that he was still able to do that so easily. We ran the last few yards to the car and our run was over. 

John told me that the drugs Alan takes affect his ability to run and his condition has changed his life in so many ways but his joy in being able to run and his love of the outdoors remains undimmed. Someone who had lost a loved one to Alzheimer’s told me once that even to the end, the essence of the man always remains. That afternoon, I was able to glimpse the Alan that had run marathons, laughed and joked with friends and had a wicked sense of humour. All of that is still there and I am very much a fan.

Postscript: I have asked to run again with John and Alan. It was such a special afternoon and one which touched my heart. I could never have kept up with the Alan of old, but running through the Deer Park hand in hand with this extraordinary man – that was a treat.

Monday, 18 March 2013

Stretching the Umbilical Cord

I am spreading myself rather thinly at the moment - or, at least, that is how it feels. I am not ever in favour of turning blogs into an excuse for either a moan or a rant (though I may have slipped into either genre at one or two points over the last few years) but there is a lot of stuff going on, most of which I have no control over, but in which my presence is somehow required. Much of it is child-related and this has to take precedence over all the other stuff which is, as they say, easier said than done.

About eighteen months ago I organised with my friend Louise (the pioneering, fundraising, torch-bearing, utterly brilliant inspiration behind the Acorn Charity) to take our mothers to the Lake District to stay with Basil and Sybil at Low Graythwaite Hall, the fabulous and fantastic B&B run by our chums. We had a great time and the two grannies absolutely loved it. So we agreed to repeat the venture and booked to go away this week immediately after Mothering Sunday when the intrepid granny would be in residence in any case at the little house on the prairie. Actually, the brief was to see 'a host of golden daffodils' as per William Wordsworth's poem but the English weather being what it is, booking for daffodil-viewing could be any time between the middle of February in a good year to sometime nearer June!

Anyway we set off on Monday, having grannied all day Sunday with mothers from both sides here for a big feed cooked by my beloved with modest assistance from 3 and 4. And it was wonderful to be back up in the beautiful Lake District with the snow-capped mountains in the distance and, obviously, scarcely a daffodil on view. However, when I had booked the trip, I had not factored in the activities of the offspring who are:

In a play in Ireland which has now successfully opened but last weekend was a source of tremendous nerves and panic, and dare I say it, a little homesickness.

Making major career changes and needing support. She does not need our opinions but just needs to talk about the pros and cons - a lot.

And two who got the results for their first round of AS modules last week and, as with GCSEs, attempted to use every letter in the alphabet for their grades.

I am also working rather hard at the moment which is a good thing from a financial point of view but not necessarily so from a laundry/domestic viewpoint. So skipping off amongst the only-just-in-bud daffodils wasn't entirely convenient but the grannies enjoyed it again and we Beatrix-Pottered for a whole day on Tuesday and what I don't know about Peter Rabbit and his pals is simply not worth knowing. And I am back now and attempting to deal with work (backing up), laundry (beyond the backing up stage and now turning into mountains of clean but un-ironed garments in nearly every room downstairs) and finding all the things children 3 and 4 lost or left somewhere in the three days I was away.

I have a number of friends whose children have disappeared off to far-flung corners of the Empire and I consider myself fortunate that three quarters of my brood are comparatively nearby. I am sure these friends too feel the stretching of the umbilical cord but I suspect, like me, they would like to introduce some sort of turns system whereby the children do not all require assistance at once. But all my offspring sent me wonderful Mothering Sunday cards (including the Barnsley lodger) so I will continue to be absolutely there for them whenever, wherever and whatever and I think they know that.

Postscript: In case you wondered, I got my first rejection letter for TFN or The Rule of Three as it is properly known. It was, in fact, very helpful and detailed and has not burst my bubble so we will be pressing on when all of the stuff mentioned above has calmed down a bit. JKR got 46 rejections before someone saw the light about Harry Potter so I remain undaunted!

Mrs Tiggy Winkle doing the laundry - an ever-present theme in my life!