Let me start off by saying that nothing will truly prepare you for grad school. You can prep until the cows come home but at the end of the day it’s all about conditioning. Mind over matter. Long days, tough nights, and sore muscles. No I’m not talking about my time in the Marines, I’m talking about grad school. Then again I did go to “Trauma Centre” but I’ve heard similar things from colleagues about other institutions as well. Let’s start at the beginning, which is essentially where it felt like we began. The first month of my masters training felt a little bit like the first month of my undergrad here in NYC. It was very much a test of “let’s evaluate everyone so we have a foundation to start from” and then we worked from there. Granted this was primarily the acting classes, but every other class operated on the assumption that everyone was starting from scratch even if they did have some experience. For instance, a couple of the girls in our group had ballet training but we all started from first position and worked our way up from there.
They started us off easy with 9 hour days in the first couple weeks and then progressed to 12 hour days for the rest of the year. Again stamina. One of the things our course leader stressed was how the work environment in the professional world would be much harder than anything in the academic world. So essentially we were building up our physical and mental endurance to prepare, a concept which was easy for me to grasp coming from the “train as you fight” mentality in the Corps. From my experience so far in the professional world, he was right. There are days where you have a 5 hour rehearsal in the beating sun before a performance in order to accommodate one of your fellow cast mates that’s going up as an understudy for a lead. There are days when you’ll be at the theater for 12 to 15 hours during tech and need to stay sharp because you could be needed at a moment’s notice. Mental and physical endurance are crucial in this business and only come with time.
Speaking of physical endurance, one of the things I learned early on was muscle memory through repetition and this correlates to the donkey work at DC. Yes you read that right, donkey work. Donkeys are known for carrying the shit that no one wants to carry and they aren’t necessarily pretty animals. Donkey work is what my course leader Paul called all of the work that you don’t want to do but need to do. Essentially it’s a system of voice & body warm-ups, textual analysis, and character exploration that becomes second nature through repetition. As an actor it’s on you to make sure you’re doing everything you need to be doing to give the best performance you can. Basically it’s making sure you aren’t cutting corners because there are parts of the job that just take time.
Of all the exercises that pushed me to my limits during 1st term, Organic Silence was by far the most difficult. It’s a 2 person exercise where you have to create a scenario but due to the context of the scene neither of you can talk. Sounds fairly easy right? Wrong. My buddy Sam and I came up with so many ideas that we thought were viable but our professor shot them down because they were either too ordinary or they had been done before. Here’s the criteria: Verbal Exposition that leads to at least 2 minutes of silence, stay away from performance pieces, must be physically flamboyant & elaborate, complex physical dialogue, and must contain specific tasks. Conquering this exercise was like beating our heads against a wall for months. Trying, failing, adjusting. Trying, failing, starting over. Trying, failing, and finally breaking through the wall. The scene we ended up exploring was: two Victorian era servants setting the table for a strict head of house that requires silence at dinner. We added in a little verbal & physical abuse from the master, a poison revenge plot, and lived through the scene. It was physically exhausting because without words we were forced to truly live each moment with our bodies. “You are the instrument your imaginations are played on.” Alex Bingley, Drama Centre Voice Instructor.
By the end of the 1st term I was exhausted in every way imaginable and was in much need of a vacation. Which brings me to one of my own mantras that I live by; recover, relax, and recharge. In order for your instrument to be in the best condition, you have to take care of it. Sometimes that means doing absolutely nothing. Recover, relax, and recharge can mean different things to different people but no matter what it means to you, just make sure whatever it is relieves stress and recharges you. Spend the day walking through a park, reading a book, watching TV even but just make sure it’s an escape mentally and physically.
If I were to cover everything from my year at DC I’d be writing a novel so if you have any questions please feel free to ask in the comments. Thanks for reading!