Directors Workshop – A Wonderful Weekend

The BBC performing arts fund provided Duns Players with a grant with the purpose of expanding into the community the opportunity for theatre. We were to offer the opportunity to learn and our original plan was to facillitate the funding opportunity to attend the short course in directing at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland.

The net was thrown open but unfortunately those interested in participating were not able to accommodate the dates. Undaunted we took the view “If the mountain can’t come to Mohammed then we must bring Mohammed to the mountain.

John McEwen describes a wonderful weekend in the company of Ali de Souza from the Royal Conservatoire.

Photos by Yidphotography.

Video by Glen Shepherd.

Many thanks to BBC Performing Arts Fund.

Ali de Souza is a Lecturer in Acting at the Royal Conservatoire where he also teaches directing. In his 50s, he has worked extensively as a professional actor and has a very firm and confident grasp of his subject.

His students for the week-end came from as far away as Hawick, Haddington and Coldingham as well as Duns. About a dozen attended most of whom were able to stay for the entire two-day workshop.

One of Ali’s rules of directing is, “Assume the actors are in a permanent state of terror and help them through that”, and with considerable expertise he created from the outset a nurturing, compassionate and humorous atmosphere: nerves were dispelled and creativity encouraged. All the participants seemed to find the resulting experience illuminating and instructive, and some seemed quite transformed by the week-end.

Ali began by asking, “What does a director do?” and got the participants, in two groups, to come up with lists of good and bad directorial traits. He was very open to the thoughts and responses of the participants and the week-end did, indeed, seem like the sort of collaboration that a director might aim for.

At the same time, however, a great deal was learned from an extremely accomplished practitioner, some of Ali’s dicta giving form and legitimacy to previously felt instinctive processes: for example: “Your first responsibility is to the author, then the audience, then the actor”; “Don’t let your actors strive for feeling, make them strive for action”; “All characters suffer”; “The strength of the characters’ wants = The strength of the play”; “Watch out for acting corridors”; “If a scene isn’t working, the entrance is probably wrong”; “Every scene is a chase. Who is the hunter, who is the prey?”

The opportunity to put fresh understanding to use came straightaway as the participants were divided into pairs and put to work on various scenes, by writers such as Anthony Minghella and Oscar Wilde. One exercise involved “actioning” when every line is examined in terms of what transitive verb it might embody. This takes time and requires concentration but can reveal fascinating riches in a text and would be bound to add urgency and strength to any actor’s performance.

Likewise, attention paid to the types of line one encounters in a play (narrative, personal, thematic and key) and to the four modes of delivery Greek theatre employed (dramatic, lyrical, epic and antithetical) would certainly pay dividends in rehearsal.

The sheer practicality of the director’s role (First Rule of Rehearsals: Be on Time) was often in passing emphasised: “workshop” seemed the correct term: this was solid stuff, grounded and workmanlike, though of course all in the service of what Ali was happy to call the magic of theatre: actors, he quietly proposed, were in the business of healing souls.

The focus of the second day was on “Discovering a Character”, the important thing to remember being that, “It’s all in the text”. Participants were urged to understand the basic formula – “ACTOR + ACTION + TEXT = CHARACTER” – and to see how research into, for example, the world of the play can deepen the actor’s sense of the character that he or she is playing.

Ali also drew attention to the way that characters usually fit into one of the three basic categories – Parent, Child or Adult – and to the fact that action is usually motivated by one of the five basic needs – survival, love, validation, happiness, conquest – and to the eight major categories of actions – to admit, to convince, to defy, to scold, to lament, to find out, to understand and to demonstrate.

The workshop was then divided into four groups of three which each prepared the scene from The Dumb Waiter by Harold Pinter when Ben and Gus consider the envelope which has just been put under the door of the room in which they are waiting. Each group chose a director and set to.

In three of the groups Ben and Gus were transformed into Betty and Gina, the change in gender illuminating the depths of interpretation available to those working with well-written scripts. And the four mini-performances which resulted were indeed amazingly diverse in shape and atmosphere.

Afterwards, as he did throughout, Ali encouraged the participants to respond as fully as they felt able and to explore their own responses.

The workshop felt mind-expanding, validating and like an invitation to explore the infinite possibilities that theatre has to offer. Future productions by the Duns Players and the other local groups represented are bound to be enhanced. Much was learned; time was well spent: theatre was honoured.