Improvisational Sonnet Workshop with Anne-Liis Poll and Anto Pett

Back in November the wonderful Mark Saunders sent me an email to let me know that some of the current batch of MA CCT students (the Masters course which he runs and which I graduated from three years ago) were going to be doing a workshop with some musicians on improvising around Shakespeare’s sonnets. He wondered if I wanted to joi – YES I DO MARK THANK YOU YES PLEASE I HAVE EMAILED THEM AND BEGGED I’LL LET YOU KNOW.

So at the beginning of December I joined the two Estonian musicians who were coming over to work with us, the singer Anne-Liis Poll and the pianist Anto Pett. There was also Aaron Shorr, who is head of keyboard at the Conservatoire and Alistair MacDonald, an electronic artist and composer from the composition department. Finally there were the students; four other actors from the current MA CCT course and one undergraduate singer – the irrepressible and pleasingly bats Olga.

I was first to arrive because, despite my perpetual lateness, opportunities like this always mean much more to those of us not in the cocoon of a course. I had longed for and looked forward to two days of professional tuition in a performance practice, while the current acting students get that the other five days of the week as well and were simply missing their weekend for more.

I consider myself really very good at doing poetry reciting. I think it is probably the only thing in the world I feel like I can assert that with. I still think that, but my certainty was shaken by drama school. I can speak at length about how I don’t consider reciting to be acting. Violin playing and harp playing need a lot of the same skills, and yet being good at one does not make you good at the other – I think of acting and reciting in the same way. Being at the Conservatoire showed me the lands I had never achieved with my recitations, but I never quite got to actually travel there. I was shown not just what I was not doing, though, but I was given glimpses of what I might be able to do. Particularly the voice work of Nadine George, which the RCS favours for actors, gave me moments of possibility which I never quite realised.

The work was hard, challenging and, often, mighty weird. I was excited and scared then to be working with people in an area I felt pride and fear in. I think Anne-Liis was expecting us to have more expertise in improvising with musicians and so on than we did have, but her work with us was amazing. Even her warm ups made me feel like I have an interesting vocal instrument which I should learn how to use better.

We did plenty of crawling around on the floor and pretending to be birds as we spoke disjointed phonemes from our texts. You know. Same old. I warned my friends and family who came to see our performance last week of how unusual it would be, and ended up disappointing them with how accessible it turned out being.

The actors and some of the musicians
The actors and some of the musicians in rehearsal

After all our experimenting, the format was fairly straightforward, beginning with a group improvisation of sound/words from the singers, actors and the electronics, then the musicians came into the emotion and mood we created and they played while we were silent. After that each of us would stand one at a time and join the improvising at a natural spot (the answer to so many questions over the five days turned out to be, ‘You will feel it’) with a rendering of the text, leading other sounds from the other artists. At the end we came together again. It was about 45 minutes, with rise and fall, but no breaks. I was pooped. It was great.

As with so many experiences, when I reflect on it I wish I’d gone further. I’m also very aware, though, that we could have worked on learning the techniques and preparing to improvise for months. The musicians had certainly been doing it for years. Yet again I was awed by the discipline and dedication of musicians. Even the simplest ways they work – daily practice; exercises; following masters; constant development and education – are foreign to all but a few actors. Exceptions like Mark Rylance rather prove the rule. But it’s not laziness. Or it’s not just laziness. Here’s my theories on why these actor/musician differences exist:

1)      You have to sort of decide to be a professional musician when you’re about 9. Ditto dancer. There’s a whole lot of routines to bash into yourself (of have bashed into you) and fun not to have for a long time before you are a grown up.

2)      Nobody is a concert level violinist with no training – while you can win an Oscar without ever (visibly – good directors do a lot) having set foot in an acting class.

3)      You take yourself seriously.

I think the last of these is the most important difference. Actors are not encouraged to do that. Not by culture, not by their peers, not by themselves. The deep and all-consuming work of Daniel Day-Lewis is seen as not only dangerous but, worse, distasteful. Plenty of stupendous actors – Emma Thompson, Olivia Coleman, Jennifer Lawrence – have repeatedly claimed that acting is fluffy, just pretend or ‘stupid’. It feels like the embarrassment of doing, and doing well, and being paid loads to do, a job that millions want drives them studiously flippant interviews.

Acting, performing, is playing. Even Mark Rylance bangs his drum about that. But so is improvising on a piano. So is almost every job I’ve ever done. So is teaching. So is academia. So, in parts, is working on a farm (not all the time, by goodness). But, jingso, you should take them seriously. They’re important, they’re hard, not everyone can do them. Reason enough.

Yeah, but I still totally did down my involvement in the sonnet improvisation workshop and performance. Yeah. I’m blog-wise and practice-amateur. But aren’t we all? Guys?

What I witnessed in Anne-Liis and the musicians was joy, skill, training, dedication and belief. I wanna get me some of that.

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