The Society of Theatre Research in association with the National Theatre organised the fourth annual Poel Event which took place at the NT on 17th September.
William Poel (1852-1934) is the English actor and director honoured by the Poel Event. In a long career he had worked at the Old Vic Theatre, as manager for Emma Conns, later his association with the Shakespeare Reading Society led to him form the Elizabethan Stage Society in 1894. At this time it is said that he brought a historical sense to the staging of Elizabethan and Jacobean plays. Earlier in the nineteenth century Shakespeare's plays had been acted in adaptations and versions to suit the taste of the time. Poel experimented with stage craft on a thrust stage as he tested his ideas of Elizabethan staging, perhaps familiar to Shakespeare and his actors, by using minimal scenery and utilising music. He put great emphasis on both the sound and clarity of an actor's voice in the communication of prose and verse to an audience.
This year again there was a healthy application for places. An STR panel of three met to consider all the applications. The Poel Event was open to actors with between two and ten years professional acting experience. Applicants were asked to provide information about their training together with a CV which detailed their acting experience. In the event twenty actors were selected ten women and ten men. Key to a successful application was a considered response from the actor to the request - please say what you hope to achieve from taking the four master-classes.
Most stated that that they wished to develop vocal and movement skills and to learn from experienced teachers and practitioners. They were keen to enhance their understanding and appreciation of classical texts. The prospect of working in the Olivier Theatre was also a great attraction, as was the opportunity of meeting other contemporary actors who were also striving to advance their technical and performing skills under the eyes of experienced professionals. The Poel Event as one actor wrote was seen as 'a unique and exhilarating opportunity to challenge myself in a collaborative professional environment with theatre practitioners at the highest level, explore ideas first introduced in the confines of my drama school and challenge myself with complex language in a new way'.
The day at the National Theatre was made up of four ninety minute workshops, workshops rather than master-classes, two of which took place in the Olivier Theatre. Each workshop was led by a leading theatre professional who indicated what material, if any, should be prepared ahead of the workshops. The first workshop of the day began with an exemplary vocal and physical warm-up conducted by the acting and vocal coach Barbara Houseman; this was followed by a focused and penetrating text workshop led by Gregory Doran, Senior Associate Director at the RSC. After lunch, which was available in the NT canteen, Jeannette Nelson, Head of Voice at the National Theatre, lead an invaluable and demanding session in the Oliver Theatre which tested the effectiveness of the actors' breath, articulation and vocal delivery: the final workshop, also in the Olivier Theatre, was led by Sir Ian McKellen. Sir Ian explained how a theatre's design and acoustics are not always 'friendly' and can impact on the actor's audibility to an audience: he then offered and demonstrated ways of overcoming this challenge which the actors then practised. Here are some of the written observations subsequently sent in by the actors;
To listen to [Sir Ian's] honest observations regarding our physicality and initial tendencies in relating stories as well as speaking verse, was refreshing and helped clarify a great deal. His ideas regarding the intention of speech, shedding the default need for superfluous gesture and demonstrative exposition, was so helpful, and to hear him put those ideas into practice, having worked through our own work, was invaluable and really cemented the points raised in each discussion.
A special thank you goes to Greg Doran. His session was so insightful, engaging, clear, organic and helpful, not only in deciphering some of the rudimentary elements of verse preparation, but also the natural and comfortable means by which an actor can play with and explore the language of Shakespeare without feeling bound to a certain set of rules or choices.
Gregory took the scariness out of Shakespeare and his simple tips gave me a new understanding and sparked my renewed interest in Shakespeare's language - I rushed home to beat out iambic pentameter.
Thank you for last Friday's Poel Event at the NT. It has been quite some time since I learnt so much in one day. The structure of the day was superb as was the balance of general and specific/personal work. I left on Friday feeling I'd gained a huge amount of information as well as tips and ideas that I can practically apply to my work. That the information came from people at the top of their field served to reinforce the legitimacy of their teaching - I truly felt I was learning from the best.
Jeannette's voice coaching on the Olivier stage was very practical and it was such an experience to perform on that stage.
It was such an inspiring, motivating and confidence building day. It was such a joy to learn practical voice exercises from Barbara, in such a gentle and no nonsense way.
The workshops exceeded my expectations, and the level of fun, commitment and general support among the actor and leaders was especially encouraging.
Opportunities like the Poel are all too scarce and in periods when work is hard to come by chances like the one you provide are golden.
Thank you for a wonderful, rich and memorable day, and a unique opportunity to challenge myself in a safe environment, with expert guidance and supportive collaborators.
What the Poel Event demonstrates year after year is that young actors are hungry to maintain and practice their rehearsal and performance techniques, through the integrated use of their voices and physicality to support characterisation. Above all they want to work with experienced actors and directors. The loss of the repertory theatres, once to be found across the country, and, importantly, with the loss of the permanent companies of actors who worked in these theatres over extended periods of time, makes it difficult for young actors to develop and make sustained progress as versatile theatre actors. The actors participating in the Poel Event were very aware that much of current casting requires actors 'to be themselves'! Sadly permanent theatre companies appear to be a thing of the past; and so young actors in the immediate years following their training at drama school do not have the opportunity to work and observe senior actors rehearsing and performing a series of roles over one or more seasons, as once was the case. The young directors they mostly encounter are like themselves at the beginning of their professional life and many have not been actors first, or had the opportunity to work alongside an experienced director within a permanent company. When Sir Ian asked the actors which theatres they had worked in their answers revealed that the largest theatre was the Bristol Old Vic and almost all of them had not acted in a medium sized theatre: hence, their excitement at being able to test their voices in the Olivier Theatre. Most of the actors taking part in this year's Poel Event said they would like to work on plays within the classical repertoire, especially those by Shakespeare, if the opportunities existed.
The Poel Event 2011 will again take place at the National Theatre in either September or October next year and the exact date will depend on the Olivier Theatre's programme schedule next autumn. Once the date is available it will be shown on the STR website, together with the opening date for applications.
STR News Archive
2nd January 2011