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


Shona Morris and Sara Topham working together at the
Stratford Festival. Photo by Peter J. Thompson
(February 5, 2018)  I think one of the most complex pieces of learning in the quest to grow as an actor is understanding how to allow all the disparate lessons and theories and light-bulb moments one experiences along the way in classes and coaching sessions and workshops, to actually be a part of the process of putting on a play. From the moment a contract is signed there begins an avalanche of paper—schedules, design sketches, measurements sheets, props lists, line notes,  all of which make one feel the pressure to move towards a result. And all of these things are organized in lines and grids which have the ominous effect, on me at least, of creating the illusion that the work is linear. And even though I have had multitudes of  conversations about process over product over my training and career, inevitably, on the floor as I am working, those lines and grids intrude and create a pressure to achieve something that will give me, and the director, and my fellow artists, some reassurance that I'm going to get 'there' (an elusive place which actually can never be reached because it doesn't exist!) I know I am not alone in this struggle, and I also know that I have found ways of dealing with the pressure over the years, ways of choosing process even when the voice in my head was screaming about product. Most of the time, if I have been successful in that attempt, it has involved some element of Pure Movement work.

I think this is fundamentally why I am so drawn to developing the capacity to teach Pure Movement; I know from experience that it is impossible to be pushing for results, or in one's own way, or paralyzed with anxiety while dropping your weight in a Pure Movement swing! To be in the body, is to be in present time, and from that place all things are possible. In recent years I've been in a lot of rooms where a director or another teacher will say something to an actor like: "You're not in your body." Or: "Get in your body." And I always find myself thinking… "If they knew how to be in their bodies, they would be!" This is one of the situations where Pure Movement, I think, can be a profound gift in a rehearsal process. We all know that the body returns to what it knows, what you teach it. It's why athletes and dancers break movement down the way they do. For a ballet dancer fifth position is home base. It's why from such a young age you are using it 1000 times a class—making it fundamentally sound so that your body will find its way there naturally and without question. Which means that even if something goes wrong, you make a mistake, you slip, you wobble, your body will seek what you have taught it and give you the grounding to let the past be the past and be able to move forward in a useful way because a grounded fifth position is a reflex, no matter what has come before.  Athletes drill and drill and drill so that in the moment that the ball comes to them and there's only a split second to make the perfect move, their brains can creatively solve the problem knowing that when they ask their bodies to follow through on that solution, they will—because they have drilled them and built useful reflexes. I once heard a sports person refer to this as 'the freedom of rigour.’

So what is our equivalent? As actors, how can we find ways to create 'home bases' for ourselves that are as reflexive as fifth position and which are useful places to create from? For a long time my only reflexes were grip and push, and I know that's true for a lot of the student actors I work with. If it wasn't going the way I thought it should be, my body's instinct was to grip and push and it always made my work less good. (Still does—it’s not like I've solved it entirely! Just consciously working on it!)  It's tricky, acting. It's subjective. There is no pirouette to spin or High C to sing or goal to score; only moments of connection that we are constantly in the process of seeking. We are looking to make ourselves, as a wonderful director once said to me, "A totally relaxed being with a volcano inside." That, I am coming to understand, is what a useful home base is. For me anyway. So the aspirations of Pure Movement—alive, engaged, energetic, released, free—have given me a way of training my body to be in the place I need it to be onstage. And because the head and the body are not separate things, when my body is in that free alive space, my head is clearer and less able to get in my way.

Sara Topham and Rob Curtis in Love Me Do at the Watford
Palace. Movement by Shona Morris. Photo by Max Lacome
This last week has been full of all these thoughts swirling around in my head as I sat in the corner during Shona's movement classes, or in an acting or voice class, or rehearsals for the yearly Greek play projects (all of which I was generously welcomed into by the staff at RADA in order to observe how these students are attempting to connect their understanding of their bodies in movement class with the idea of acting.) It's also been a very full week of practical work as Shona and I locked ourselves in studios and continued to dissect the physical and pedagogical elements of Pure Movement. My notebooks are crammed with tiny stick figures and multitudes of notes. There's an element of courage in this work that I never truly appreciated before—and it has to do with being willing to engage in a loss of control. In each of these swings (and there are a myriad of combinations in which to do them), Shona encourages me to release to the point of a momentary loss of control—and allow the swing to flow through that moment—rather than trying to organize it too much. It gives me the same feeling I used to get as a child when a tall grown-up would lift me overhead on a swing and then let go: giving me a momentary feeling of weightlessness before gravity took hold of me and sent me arcing under the bar of the swing set. I used to find it both thrilling and terrifying. It sounds funny to say that this moment in a swing, brief as it is, requires courage, but it does. It's a little moment of faith that your arm will not actually fly off the end of your shoulder—and it's surprisingly hard to do! And so it's not just the drop in the body that is being practiced and repeated (which is very good for the structure of the body of course); you are actually rehearsing courage and faith—in a micro-sense—and that seems to me to be infinitely useful in the development of an actor. Because in the end all our rehearsal is for naught if in the moment of telling the story our courage and faith desert us. I spoke in my last post about 'discoveries vs. decisions' and each of these tiny (and yet somehow vast) moments of losing control is a place alive with discovery—what will happen now? Rather than the decision to bring one's arm down in an arc you have to wait and discover what the body will do, what the body will say, if we stop telling it what to do and say for even a moment.

Which brings me to the last element of learning I want to share, something that I think is at the heart of why this work can be so deeply transformational. Many of the exercises that Shona has the students working through lead her to talk to them about story and movement and how they connect. She says repeatedly, as they are working through a series of movement patterns as a game between them: "The movement gives you the story. You don't decide on a story and then choose a movement that tells that story. You follow a movement impulse and then discover what story it tells." This is a revelation. To the students. And to me. I see what happens to the work when they give over to this non-intellectual, non-controlled way of exploring. They are transformed. One young woman follows a movement impulse that brings her hand to point sharply at something in the distance dragging her eyes into a laser-like focus and her head after them. As soon as she tries to walk, following through on that impulse, she finds she is a very old woman and, instantly, is completely absorbed in the process of discovering how the desire to get to the thing she is pointing at interacts with the fact that her old body resists swift motion. It's remarkable because if someone had told her to show us that she was an old lady she would have done a lot of clich├ęd 'old lady' movement and acting, but this way she followed the movement and it led her into a full embodiment of that state. I would have believed her to be 90. And that whole story came out of a simple movement. I think this is one of the ways that this work can be so helpful to a rehearsal process: what if, when you hit a wall (as we all do!), instead of trying to fix it with your brain you had a solid process involving movement which would allow your body to help you discover what came next? These students are going to. And I envy them finding it so young.
Sara's notebook

At the end of the week I see this transformative power in action again, this time on a whole room full of bodies and beings, and it was a beautiful way to bring my observation time to a close. We are in one of the rehearsal studios, named for Henry Irving, and this group of students are rehearsing their Greek project: Iphigenia In Aulis. The play begins at the moment when Agamemnon and his fleet are becalmed at Aulis, and Shona and her fellow director want to find a way to create the sense of inertia that the army are experiencing. She asks them to step against the walls of the room and then gives a set of concise instructions: First drum beat—walk into the space and balance it. (Balancing the space is one of the exercises they do almost every day in class. It means that they are responsible for filling the space evenly while in constant motion and requires a very alive awareness of everyone in the space at all times.) Second drum beat—come to stillness. Spiral down to the floor and make a deep shape. (Deep is one of the shapes they explore in their movement classes—along with high, wide, narrow, forward, and back.) Allow your breath to become audible. Once the instructions are given she stands, ready with her drum, and they begin. The result is extraordinary. At first it's just people, present and alive, moving in the space. Then, suddenly, they stop and all the life seems to drain out of their bodies as they find stillness on the ground. And then they breathe…and the hair on my arms stands on end. Because what I've just seen, without them 'acting' it, is the Greek army preparing for battle: in motion, alert, alive. Then suddenly they stop, and you know that something has changed. Then they are dragged into an eternity of waiting. Waiting so long that they become rocks on the beach. Their breath becoming both their means of survival, and the eldritch sound of the lack of wind on the shore. I swear I could feel the sand between my toes! It is a profound transformation. And it is achieved without ever telling them what story they are expressing, but rather letting them move first, and the expressing comes from inside that experience. I wonder as I pack up for the last time, whether next time it will be as magical, whether they will have the discipline (and courage and faith!) to let the movement tell the story, or whether, once they understand how it fits into the production they will be unable to resist 'adding acting'. I hope it's the former; I hope that somewhere inside themselves they understand how powerful it is. And I hope that I will one day be able to lead a group of actors to that place using the tools I've amassed in my time here. 

Wolfe Morris (on right) during his student days at RADA
When I first started at Stratford, I had the chance to work with Diane D'Aquila, who was extremely generous with her time and advice. At the end of the season I gave her a long (and I'm sure very intense!) note about all the things I was grateful to her for, along with a bottle of wine. The next time she saw me she said something I've never forgotten. After expressing her appreciation for the wine and the card she said: "There's really no need the thank me. Just do it for somebody else." I think of that every single time I teach, and will do always. I've been the beneficiary of extraordinary teaching and generosity all of my life, and I feel so lucky that I'm now having the chance to do my best to pass it on. This mentorship opportunity has been a huge step forward in my capacity to 'do it for somebody else' and I am deeply grateful to Theatre Ontario for the grant which gave me the chance to immerse myself fully in the work I am passionate about, and to The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and all the staff and students there, for allowing me to come and making me feel so welcome across the entire institution. At the end of my last day at RADA, Shona took me upstairs where long lists of graduating prize winners from days gone by grace the walls. We stood together in front of a photograph of her father, Wolfe Morris, during his days as a RADA student. I spoke in my application about the chain I feel privileged to be a part of, by virtue of the artists I've learned from. I am so very grateful that Shona has agreed to share her link in the chain with me, a link which connects her to her father and to the extraordinary Trish Arnold among others. That connects me, and all the actors I will have the chance to teach, with them too. What a gift.

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The next application deadline for the Professional Theatre Training Program is October 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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