Thursday, 25 January 2018

Stories from the Professional Theatre Training Program: Sara Topham

Our Professional Theatre Training Program (PTTP) offers financial support for unique and flexible training with a chosen mentor in any theatrical discipline (except performance.)

Sara Topham will train in teaching Pure Movement with Shona Morris at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London UK

(December 30, 2017)  In a few days I will be flying to England to pursue my Professional Theatre Training Program mentorship opportunity—two weeks of intense observation and exploration at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London. My mentor will be Shona Morris, who is currently Lead Movement Tutor at RADA, and who has worked in many major theatrical training institutions in the UK, and coached on productions all over the world. To say I am excited would be a major understatement!

When I came into the professional theatre world I had a 4-year acting degree and over fifteen years of ballet training. One of the challenges I faced as I moved out of being 'a dancer who wanted to act' towards being an actor (who could still dance!) was that all the skill I had amassed during those years at the ballet barre was dictating my movement in a way that limited me as an actor. Early on in my time at Stratford I worked with a wonderful Alexander coach who said to me: "It's not about getting rid of all that learning, because that learning is valuable; it's about making it a choice rather than a habit." I worked really hard at that, but as anyone one who has made the transition from dancer to actor knows, it's not an easy path, and often times the difficulty was that although I was eager to work at reconnecting with my body outside of the confines of ballet technique, I didn't know what to do in a practical sense to work on it. Then I met Shona Morris. 

Agamemnon at the Stratford Festival
Photo by Terry Manzo
Shona came to Stratford from England to work on a trilogy of Greek plays at the Studio Theatre. A single company was working on various versions of the Orestia story and my main role was to play Cassandra in Agamemnon. I was terrified. I remember, before rehearsals started, opening the play to read it and being so scared I immediately closed it again. Then we got to the first read through and I sat on my hands the entire time; I felt paralyzed by the scale of it. Up until that point I had really only played parts that were within my realm of experience (or at least the well-developed imaginative experience of my childhood—I played a lot of princesses!), so to take on the journey of a prophetess in the grip of visions who would eventually foresee her own horrific demise and walk willingly into it was intimidating to say the least. Shona, however, was not in the least intimidated or paralyzed—the whole project was right in her wheelhouse. Lucky, lucky me. We worked privately several times a week, and she was also in the rehearsal hall a great deal of the time observing and supporting. She seemed to be able to almost get inside my body and reprogram my circuits! It was miraculous to me that I was able to find a way of moving that was so deeply connected to my centre and also freed me to fall into Cassandra's experience and energy. David Latham's vibrant and dynamic rehearsal process allowed me to integrate this new way of being in my body with the text, and helped me to work towards serving the storytelling with every word and gesture.  That role changed the course of my career, changed how people saw me as an actor, and my work with Shona was a huge part of that. 

Shona and Sara
Over the years since then Shona and I have had the chance to work on many, many projects at Stratford and our relationship continued to deepen and grow not only as teacher and student, but as mentor and mentee, and also as friends and colleagues. I now use what I learned from her in every part I play; and even on a project she isn't  involved with, I often talk with Shona over email when I come across some challenge I'm not sure how to work through, and her advice is always impeccable and profoundly helpful. In 2014 I went to England to work with her on a play and during that time we began to talk seriously about finding a way to help me acquire the skill necessary to teach the method that is the foundation of her work, which is called Pure Movement (more on that later.) I had already begun to do quite a lot of teaching between acting contracts (and continue to do so), and inevitably I use the things I learned from her to help and support the actors in my charge. But I am always aware that there are gaps in my understanding of the work, particularly when I am confronted with someone whose challenges and needs are very different than mine. 

RADA has given me unprecedented access to the institution. I will be observing Shona in her first, second, and third-year classes, as well as having the chance to attend some rehearsals where she will be working on Greek Chorus. Different beings and bodies respond differently, and watching her deal with students with a variety of skills and experience, some with a natural aptitude for the work and some who need more help to connect to it, will give me enormous insight into Pure Movement work from a teaching perspective as opposed to the acting perspective. She and I will also have time to discuss the pedagogy, and explore building lesson plans and ways of structuring a syllabus which will be invaluable in terms of increasing my understanding of how to transmit the work and pass it forward. I have so many questions that I can't wait to find the answers to! Or more likely, as is often the case in the theatre, find answers will lead to more questions! I am thrilled to be embarking on this adventure.

The next application deadline for the Professional Theatre Training Program is March 1, 2018.

Theatre Ontario’s Professional Theatre Training Program is funded by the Ontario Arts Council, an agency of the Government of Ontario.

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