By Lois Adamson
“The Antigone Project was like opening a window for the first time after a long winter. I was cozy and warm and comfortable throughout that winter, but I had forgotten how wonderful and exciting freshness is and how great it feels to learn.” – Liz, Project Participant
In the last week of August – hot, humid and as far from winter as you can be – nine incredible young artists, each at different stages in their actor training, from several Ontario post-secondary programs, participated in a training intensive at YPT. The six-day session focused on Epic Theatre, which can be described as a bold, high stakes story told through heightened language and big emotions. The demands of such theatre cannot be met without willing emersion in what it means to be a fully-alive human being.
With Anne Carson’s Antigone as their text, they were instructed by master teacher David Latham and YPT Artistic Director Allen MacInnis. Additionally, they worked with Associate Artistic Directors, Karen Gilodo and Stephen Colella, playwright Jeff Ho, who is writing a new adaptation of Sophocles’ Antigone, and myself.
This training comprised part one of The Antigone Project, a new and innovative training/professional opportunity for emerging artists from across Canada. Participating in it was a joy for all involved – a lift at the end of the summer. At the closing of a season, I felt a beginning or an “open window”, as one of our participating artists described it.
During this training week, I observed an exchange of generous and rigorous teaching and learning – the quick and beautiful building of an ensemble. I was in awe of David’s pedagogical mastery. Every day I was moved by the actors’ work and by evidence of their preparation from the night before. I was moved by the focus they brought, the space we shared, the way we played.
In October, I asked these nine actors how The Antigone Project training is affecting their current practice. I wondered if it would translate or if the magic created together in the YPT Studio in the last days of summer had dissipated, the way magic sometimes does. But it seems to have held on.
“I think the reason why the techniques David taught us worked was because he was focused on our learning. Often in shows, everyone is focused on getting a production up on its feet, and there’s not a lot of time necessarily to spend developing individual actor awareness and skills. The Antigone Project, however, was structured on how best to teach us skills, and that was really a great environment to explore and learn in.”
“I find sometimes classes at school, or even other outside training I have taken, can tend to complicate things to make them seem big and important, while really just convoluting them. I think the reason why certain exercises worked for me has something to do with the straightforward – almost basic, if I can say that – way David and Allen laid out the exercises for us. This outlook on the work we were doing made it so much more accessible. Acting can often seem like such a weird, mystical, imaginary thing that is impossible to really grasp. However, in The Antigone Project, this was stripped away and we were left with what we really had and could use – ourselves and each other.”
“They equipped me with practical exercises. Often our work in school is focused on group exploration. While interesting and useful in its own right, I question how often I’ll be able to use these group-based tasks in my professional work after school. Through The Antigone Project, I learned a variety of exercises, both analytic and practical, to apply to my work. I also learned that every time I read a script, I should be doing something with it, be that looking up new words or paying attention to that last word in every sentence. I’ll never read a script again!”
“Revisiting exercises with David that I had been introduced to a year earlier deepened my appreciation for how effective they can be. Beyond that, David is a different person from the one who first introduced these techniques to me. I think that, over the years, David has been able to identify common problems actors encounter with these exercises and techniques, and has developed his introduction of them and effective ways to utilise them accordingly.”
“I think the key for actors is never to give up on an exercise. Even if it doesn’t work with one instructor or director, it could when the same exercise is approached in a new way by another instructor. I think in my case; it was exactly that. My previous instruction hadn’t worked for me, but David’s method did.”
“Asking myself, ‘did you do it?’ (a question David always asked after an exercise or scene) has become a thing that I’ve built into my practice… It is helping me be more specific and aware in my work. And also acknowledging that if I didn’t do it, there is always an opportunity to try it again, and that it is not a bad thing or something to beat myself up about, so it is also helping me learn to be gentle with myself. And I mean, being gentle with myself in the work and outside of it is something that I have identified as something I have needed to work on in the past, but I never really developed a viable strategy for it, so thank you, David, for this question.”
In addition to the practical application of the exercises they learned and a renewed interest in learning itself, the artists spoke of many other things, including the excitement that comes from meeting new people, and the pleasure of being a part of something.
But what really stood out to me in their responses is the fact that The Antigone Project provided them the space and freedom they are often missing in their school training. They were able to explore themselves and their capacity as actors in a new context free from academic pressure, pre-existing relationships and the confines of conventional schooling.
“The Antigone Project has instilled a sense of confidence in me that I didn’t always have. The week intensive forced me to do things as an actor I didn’t think I could, and helped me to open up and offer thoughts on the experiences I had. It has also just given me a new outlook on what I do, and how I go about doing it. I have certainly noticed this change in me now that I am back at school.”
“The fact that there was no expectation as to a right or wrong way to do things, but only a matter of doing the exercise itself. It helped me to take ownership of my work without worrying about grades or performing for the public. It was a place for exploration, discovery and constant, productive change.”
“Without a doubt, participating in The Antigone Project is the best thing I could have done this summer. No exaggeration. From an acting perspective, I gained techniques that work for me and started understanding my own process. Having a fresh start to learn with new actors was fantastic. Theatre school can put you into a box of who you are and how you act.
I think the reason that the nine of us were able to get so close is because Lois, Stephen, Jeff, David, Allen, and Karen were all a part of our ensemble. They were encouraging and participating in a way that meant we were all discovering the text together and creating something new. It was so exciting. It’s true that exercises I’d done before worked for the first time with David, but more than that, I was able to playfully act for the first time in over a year. In part it’s because David teaches the exercises with less of an emphasis on what is correct, and that allowed me to relax. However, I think the reason I was able to be open and vulnerable in my acting was the warm atmosphere that was created. Having everyone sitting there, being open to us and watching the work without judgement, playing games with us every morning, and staying caring throughout kept me flexible throughout the entire process.
At university this year I’ve noticed how differently I’m approaching the work. When I’m upset, I address it instead of internalizing and containing, and that allows me to explore much deeper emotions. It’s so exciting for me, and I’m certain it’s because of the week of training with all of you.”
“It may just come down to a change of setting (new people, new space) and a lack of academic pressure. Because I didn’t have to worry about getting it ‘right’, I could let the exercise confuse me and figure it out as I went along. Sitting in the dilemma and giving myself permission to be confused helped me work with ‘beginner’s eyes’ and therefore abandon preconceived notions of what something was supposed to mean or be or do. I also found that, because I didn’t know most of the people in the class, I didn’t feel like I had to do ‘Liz’ as ‘Liz’ has been historically. And it was also really fun and inspiring to see different people work and get to know them through that.”
“Often in my training at school, I focus on “getting it right.” This is an easy trap to fall into when grades are at stake. Playing it safe is safest. This idea is sometimes supported by my misunderstanding of faculty feedback. In my mind, “that worked!” or worse, “that worked better!” means, “try to do that every time!”… This results in work becoming stale or unexciting. I stop discovering new things, and I get frustrated when I can’t reach the same beats or emotional states as I did in previous runs. David and Allen always reinforced the idea of trying something new every time I got up to work in the space. They encouraged me to challenge myself, and to try something new every run, regardless of whether or not it initially felt right. Everything I try can inform the next run.
It was refreshing to work in an environment free of pre-conceived notions of casting. While the facilitators had watched our audition videos, they seemed very free in selecting parts for each of us to explore. School, I’ve always felt, should be the time to explore parts we might not read for “out there” and yet often we fall into the same role over and over again. Getting to read for a part out of my typical niche was so revitalizing and encouraging.”
We look forward to continuing to discuss our learning as The Antigone Project develops. Stay tuned.
To see Part II of The Antigone Project, click here.