Back in September, Gareth spent five intensive weeks with the fourteen MA Acting students at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire. Leading their Storytelling Module, he helped the actors explore a range of ideas around play, ensemble, spontaneity and the best ways to serve an audience. The later stages of the module saw the actors test these skills through a devising process around the premise of The Family; a thrilling saga of relationships in crisis, riddled with dangerous secrets and devastating betrayals. As each day progressed, new layers of complexity and conflict were added to the story, leading to a VERY eventful gathering of the two family clans on the final day.

We invited three members of the ensemble, Carys Jones, Tom Bonam and Mary Garbé to write a blog post about their Storytelling experience. You can read their insights from the rehearsal room below…

Carys Jones

To begin my Master’s Degree with five weeks of Storytelling with Little Earthquake felt like the best way to start my year-long course. After being out of education for a little while, it catapulted me out of the ‘Teacher Carys’ brain I had adopted for the past three years and threw me straight back into thinking like an actor. I enjoyed feeling free, unfiltered, child-like and bold. Every morning I woke up early to think about the stories and relationships that we’d been creating during our improvisations.

Little Earthquake used Guiding Principles to help us through the process of understanding and developing our acting. They range from more practical approaches such as ‘Find The Fun’, to the more psychological ‘Clarity Of Want’. All of the Guiding Principles help shape an actor’s approach to improvisational work and text. They’re almost like a check list that you can follow and I’ll certainly be carrying them forward in my career.

These scenes could either be the most awkward and forced moments, or they could be the most freeing, exciting and surprising work the group produced.

Every session challenged me in some way. The early games and exercises were designed to lead up to bigger, more adventurous activities such as long-form improvisations. These were often the most challenging. There was no backstory, no given circumstances, no character, no relationship, nada. We had to find and explore all of these through the improvisation itself by listening to our scene partners, accepting and building on the offers they made. These scenes could either be the most awkward and forced moments, or they could be the most freeing, exciting and surprising work the group produced. Over time, we developed the skills to make our improvised scenes more sophisticated and daring.

During our final weeks with Little Earthquake we applied all we had explored to a devising process, and it is during this time that I have my fondest memories. We created an intricate network of relationships within the group through improvisation and other exercises. It was so surprising how Gareth and Phil had meticulously planned every little detail. I was involved in a love triangle, which unfortunately ended with me being left sad and alone (sob, sob). Onstage my character was going through absolute hell, but I was loving it as an actor. It was exciting to come in every day and not know how it would all end.

Every day during the module Gareth inspired me to be a better actor, collaborator and theatre maker. He supported us during our highs and lows, he praised us continually, built confidence and allowed the quieter members of the group to really shine. He was there to reassure, and to empathise when we needed it.

Also, Phil is pretty great too!

Mary Garbé

Throughout the module, the element I enjoyed exploring most was the idea of not focusing on what you expect to happen! From Day One this was very obvious and was something that kept the work constantly enjoyable. I think that the fun factor made it incredibly rewarding. Learning not to worry about looking stupid or feeling foolish meant I could really let myself go. I was finally allowed to explore parts of me that I felt had been slowly taken away throughout my education and career to date.

Throughout the module we learnt not to preconceive. As someone who overthinks everything I found this very difficult at first. I found myself slipping into preconceiving as a kind of protection mechanism when I felt unsure about something, but Gareth always knew when this was the case and would use different exercises to try and help me to overcome this. One exercise involved us pulling lots of imaginary items out of a cardboard box. The first time I did this I never thought I would be able to do it fluidly, or without embarrassed laughter! However, doing a whole five minutes of it a few weeks later was like nothing I had ever experienced – so liberating and fun! As a new ensemble it was also challenging to feel confident in being your true self – but each game that Gareth taught us helped to break down our barriers in a fun but comforting way.

I do not feel like the same actor now as I did at the start of the five weeks.

In terms of how I feel I’ve developed as an actor throughout the module, I do not feel like the same actor now as I did at the start of the five weeks. I was always so worried about looking silly and not doing things right the first time. Gareth encouraged me to play and find the fun, helping me to understand that my best lesson was my last mistake. I slowly began to trust my instincts as a performer and to push myself over the obstacles that held me back.

Devising was always a scary thought for me, not feeling that I would have anything to bring to the process. However, all of the tools we were given showed me that I can be a valuable member in any collaboration. I don’t think my acting was very authentic when we began – always thinking I had to ‘act’ to show I was working hard. But, using the guiding principles and thinking about collaborating with the audience, my old habits have melted away and I now feel that I can bring fun and engaging acting to any piece.

Every time we warmed up with ‘Bananas Of The World, Unite!’, or I thought about Gareth saying “you could all be working in a bank right now”, I couldn’t stop grinning!

I have so many happy memories of the module, including warming up with a exercise called ‘Bananas Of The World, Unite!’ every day. Every time we did this, or I thought about Gareth saying “you could all be working in a bank right now”, I couldn’t stop grinning – this is my life!

One of my top memories was nicknamed #worldpremier. During a scene with a partner, we were allowed one line of text per person and all you could do was respond to your partner’s offer using that text. My partner and I were given a new combination of “I love you” and “I’m sorry”. This was the first time everything clicked for me and an emotional by-product was generated. I accepted and built on the offers, trusted my scene partner, and what happened blew me away! I will always remember this as a turning point. Another was an improvised ‘Skype’ call during our devising work. Gareth knew I had struggled with the earlier telephone call exercise (in which we had to improvise a telephone conversation with an off-stage character without preconceiving) and I feel like this allowed me the second chance I needed to really understand it. The material we created and the way we were able to develop our characters through this call was so special to me.

As an actor I had always been told to lead with emotion – such as being able to feel sad or happy on cue. Gareth completely disagrees with this approach, and we spent a lot of time exploring this and discovering that emotion can only ever be a by-product of chasing what you want during each specific moment. This not only surprised me but has changed everything I ever thought about acting.

Little Earthquake is exactly the type of company I aspire to work with when I graduate. The process that they use to create theatre and develop actors is incredibly special because of the nurturing, encouraging and creative environment they promote. I feel very lucky to have been able to experience working with them.

Tom Bonam

The time that I spend working with Little Earthquake was one of the most enjoyable learning experiences I’ve ever had. I thought it was wonderful how Gareth was able to take a group of individuals who didn’t know one another, and start to turn us into a cohesive ensemble from Day One. Throughout the module we were constantly encouraged to push ourselves further, but this was always done in a supportive, safe and fun way.

Perhaps my favourite aspect of the work was the focus on simplicity, on breaking down the craft of acting and exploring each ‘bite size chunk’ fully. We were then able to combine all of these ‘chunks’ to build a solid foundation as an actor. The skills and tools I learnt were also completely flexible, meaning that I can apply them in any scenario (and have done so already!)

Another wonderful part of the work was the focus on fun. Before this module, I was guilty of not always finding the fun in performing – it’s very easy to get so wrapped up in the details of a role, and to forget that acting is amazing and ultimately, exciting! Gareth consistently brought the fun to each session, he knew exactly which exercises we needed to either find the fun, increase our energy or increase our focus.

I will never look at a game of ‘tag’ in the same way again.

I was astonished at how much I learnt through the simple games we played. This was because each game related directly to one of the Guiding Principles that we were exploring. Gareth took the time to ensure that we were always aware of why we were doing what we were doing. (I will never look at a game of ‘tag’ in the same way again – why did I never play this before without focusing on what I wanted most in the world at each specific moment?!)

For me, the most challenging aspect of this work was overcoming my tendency to preconceive. I believe this came down to not trusting myself or thinking that if I didn’t have a ‘plan’ before performing, it would be a failure. However, trusting in the exercises that we were learning and committing to them fully meant that I slowly began to trust myself more and more. But the most amazing thing is that I was not even really conscious of this development – the work simply drew it out of me in an organic way. This is true of all of the skills we explored in the module. It never felt like they were forced on us. Instead, the seeds were planted and were allowed to grow in their own way, which was always different for everyone. I also found that by the end of the module, I was no longer afraid to fail because there was always an opportunity to learn. As Gareth would say, “Your greatest lesson is your last mistake.”

I was no longer afraid to fail because there was always an opportunity to learn. As Gareth would say, “Your greatest lesson is your last mistake.”

My happiest memory of the module was working on the improvisation work. There was an exercise called “One Liners” in which two people were asked to improvise, but they could only say one line of text each – in my case it was “I’m sorry” and my partner could only say “I love you”. Although we had the lines to use, the context of the situation and the relationship between the characters would constantly shift and alter. This was a very special exercise to me, because it was when all of the skills we were learning through games came together and created a lovely moment on stage between me and my scene partner. We really had no idea where the scene would go which made it so fun to be a part of, and by focusing on my want and the offers made by my scene partner, emotion was generated as a by-product. I was really amazed by this.

The only negative I have about this work? That it had to end.

I feel that my time working with Little Earthquake has not only enriched my life as an actor, but also as an individual. I feel like I’m now more able to set my mind free of preconceived ideas and to not censor my creativity. I feel that I can be a valuable member to any collaboration as I have learnt to trust that “the well is never dry”! This is not something that I would have thought possible in five weeks (you see, don’t preconceive!)

The only negative I have about this work? That it had to end.