Tuesday, 27 February 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 training in teaching Pure Movement with Shona Morris at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London UK

(January 15, 2018)

The shores of Greece. 2018. Or 431 BC. Or some time in between. Or still to come. Or before our imagining. A group of people stand, feet planted in the sand. Seemingly still, and yet filled with motion. Suddenly and yet also inevitably, on a breath they raise their arms and I see what they see—ships approaching in the distance. Then again suddenly and yet inevitably, their arms fall and rise again pulling the ships to the shore. Then their bodies pitch forward as their arms fall yet again and the waves crash on the shore bringing the boats up onto the sand. As the boats land the seers reach their arms up over their heads towards the sky, the Gods, the unknown . . . and then drop them by their sides . . . and sea, sand, shore, boats and sky disappear in a breath. We are no longer in Greece, but rather in a long room on the ground floor of The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in a second year movement class.  It was one of my favourite moments in a week filled with similarly extraordinary ones and I'm only half way through my time here. 

It's been incredibly instructive and inspiring. As I mentioned before Shona and I have been working together on and off for a long time—but this is the first time I've seen her work with a group in a way that wasn't linked to a particular play. It's also, to be blunt, the first time I've seen her in a room with a group of students who are all there to learn rather than a group of actors of various ages and stages, some of whom immediately connect to the work and some of whom view it with suspicion or resistance. My first observation opportunity was with the Third Years—their first class back after Christmas break and it was what I would describe as a tuning class. Shona's teaching style is, of course, a mix of all the amazing experience she's amassed over her career both as an actor and as a teacher but the back bone of what I'm here to learn from her is the Pure Movement work she learned from Trish Arnold over their long relationship. (If you would like to know more about Trish and the development of her Pure Movement work, this is a link to a detailed obituary in The Guardian.)

A lot of people have passed through this doorway
Watching these students—who have been working with Shona (and the rest of the RADA faculty) for two and a half years—dive into the work was a wonderful way to start my journey. I started my stage life as a ballet dancer and so the structure of a dance class is something that is completely second nature to me. This is different. Doing this kind of movement for actors requires a flexibility in the structuring of the class and an ability to follow their bodies as much as your own plans. I loved knowing what her plan was, because we discussed it beforehand, and then seeing how it evolved on the floor as she guided them through the work. When we discussed the class later she shared with me that for her, a good class is always aspiring to lead to a moment of drama—and that because you never know how that will transpire, part of what you are doing when you plan a class is just making the space amenable to that possibility. And when the drama shows itself—she follows it. As I watched the rest of the classes during the week, armed with this insight, I was able to spot the moment when, sensing that drama building, she strayed from her plan in order to pursue it. Unlike a ballet class where you are often building to a final enchaĆ®nement which the teacher has set before class begins, these classes are led by the collective body and imagination of the group and it's from them that the moment of drama may be born. This has given me much to think on! I've always been very comfortable teaching period dancing—because the structure of the dance gives me the thing I am working towards; at the end of the class I want to have taught them the beginning, the middle, and the end of the dance! This work offers so much opportunity to challenge myself as a teacher, to trust myself to go off plan and follow the impulse in the room if it's leading somewhere that makes us all curious. 

Impulse is the word I hear Shona use most in the classroom. She has reiterated in a multitude of ways over the last week this central idea: "Don't obey a physical instruction, find the movement impulse." It's a way of leading the students back into their bodies, to pull them out of intellect, which is so often in the way, and into exploration and discovery. I've written down a whole host of things from across the classes that touch on this search for freedom and creativity through the body: "discoveries not decisions" being the one I love most. This came out of a class for the Second Year students who are preparing to work on Greek plays, and much of Shona's work with them will focus on the Chorus and leading them though the concepts and practices as she sees them so that they can be a living and responsive presence rather than a choreographed one. This is a scary way to work, at times, because it requires so much willingness to risk, and these students are up to the challenge. I am moved to laughter and tears as she guides them through and it's all so magically organic (to employ that terribly overused word.) They have a shared language and a capacity to connect and trust themselves and each other so when they are given a situation to inhabit they do so together—united, but not in unison. It is in this class that my favourite moment of drama happens, right at the end as she is teaching them something called The Wave. They have already been through various patterns: gathering behind each other, passing through each other, changing directions and leaders; they move through these, hesitantly at first, and then faster and more confidently, eventually becoming like a school of fish. Then each of these movements is tested by having one student as the protagonist working opposite the chorus—she moves and they, as one, respond on the impulse, together. Not predetermined, no choreography, a collective impulse that moves them all in response to the protagonist's physical offer. It's theatre magic. Then we come to The Wave. This is the simple act of spreading out into space and receding, but with their connected and collective energy it's a beautiful sight. They repeat it several times, each time understanding more and more what they are creating. And the last time Shona offers them an image from Medea, the play they will be working on: A woman in a golden shawl burning alive. They move towards her, and retreat in horror, each individual seeing the image and responding in their own time, and yet entirely together. It's breathtaking. I could see the flames. A moment of pure drama. Built out of bodies in relation to each other in space. 

Shona's drum in action
Besides watching classes I am spending hours alone in studios with Shona and her drum—her constant companion—working to understand the work in the practical and pedagogical sense. We move and discuss and examine and analyze and move again. I am beginning to understand how she structures things the way she does and why it yields such extraordinary work. She's always very clear with me that I must teach in the way that makes sense to me. Not as a replica of her, but as my own person. Which is good advice! Anyone who has been in a room with someone who is trying to lead and yet is not themselves knows it's no way to run a room. I will, however, work hard to absorb her practices because I believe in their power to transform the body and open it up to the possibilities that lie before us. I cannot possibly, in this space, describe all I am experiencing; suffice it to say that I am full to the brim with learning and cannot wait for my second week.

Related Reading:

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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