Introducing the Downe House Acting Company

A special programme for our Sixth Form dramatists

7 February 2024

Launched in September 2022 by Mr Gould (Director of Drama and Dance), the Acting Company has already provided a variety of opportunities for our Sixth Form dramatists to immerse themselves in. This has included workshops led by inspiring individuals, from both in and outside of the DH community, who shared insightful lessons from their broad experience in the world of drama and theatre. 

The value of working closely with a group of peers who all share a strong passion for the dramatic arts is evident. Our pupils speak fondly of this supportive environment and how it’s enabled them to refine their skills. The accumulated knowledge and dedication of the Company has resulted in a performance of the play ‘Marvin’s Room’ by Scott McPherson. The Company have developed this piece to perform as part of the Drama & Dance Residency coming soon to the Murray Centre.

Read on to discover how members of the Downe House Acting Company have found their experience of the programme from September 2022 to the present day.

The Impact

Members of the acting company have summed up just a handful of opportunities, some of which were favourites of ours, that we were presented with over the course of the last 18 months, and just how beneficial and insightful they have been for all of us. However, it is first important to understand the overall impact that this company has had on us as individuals.

 

“Before Acting Company, students who had an interest in performing had a narrowed insight into the theatre industry as well as the types of training many actors undertake during drama school. This amazing opportunity has allowed us to explore and play within the theatre space; learning new techniques that have given us a different perspective on how to act. It has been a place where risk and spontaneity is encouraged, allowing for confidence to grow and performance to be fun rather than fearful. It’s been amazing to be able to meet industry professionals who have real world experience in the theatre providing us with advice and giving us belief in ourselves to achieve our aspirations. 

Without Acting Company, I would have gone into the performing world with a lack of trust in myself and my ability to perform. I now know different practitioners, how to annotate a script, how to produce a successful self-tape and so much more, allowing me to grasp as many opportunities as I can. Even if I were to not continue performing in the future, the experience has taught me about human behaviour, the importance of listening and how to be present in everything that I do, something so valuable as one gets older.  

I highly recommend joining the Acting Company at Downe House, as it has contributed to my performance and people skills, something I cherish as we start to transition to the adult world. It is an experience where I have made valuable friendships and is a place where anyone can discover their passion.”

Hannah, Head of Academic Drama

Meisner Technique

The first, and so in some ways most memorable, workshop that we completed was about Sanford Meisner and his technique of repetition. This has become increasingly important for our performance of Marvin’s Room as the show is highly naturalistic and this technique aids us in establishing our characters internal and external emotions.  

 

“We began looking at Meisner’s technique of repetition during the Michaelmas term. Meisner was a well-respected practitioner in the early 1930s who took inspiration from Stanislavsky’s naturalistic approach to acting. Meisner believes in following an actor’s gut instincts and putting your whole focus and attention onto the other actor in the scene. At first, we were slightly apprehensive as you are meant to completely forget about any physical and vocal skills and just listen to the other actor, something that you are often told to do the opposite of.

The repetition technique involves two actors sitting across from each other and they both mimic each other’s vocal and physical skills. After repeating this for a short period of time, eventually someone will start to become frustrated, and this becomes evident and a ‘pile up’ begins. A ‘pile up’ is when the repetition breaks as someone responds with their gut instinct. After we had gotten the hang of basic repetition, we were asked to find a task where you have to concentrate e.g. sorting coloured sequins or building a playing card castle.

It was extremely interesting to learn how important listening to each other is when acting and how much it changes a scene and makes it much more elevated. Even after a year, we still find ourselves using the technique for most pieces we do such as Marvin’s Room.”

Eliza, Head of Extra-Curricular Drama

Screen Acting

In April 2023, we moved onto working on self-tapes, which proved to be a highly valuable experience for those of us wishing to enter the working world of theatre and drama.  

 

“As part of Acting Company, we were lucky enough to branch into the world of screen acting as well as the stage acting we have been used to from our time at Downe. We were very keen to learn more about the industry of acting, and in particular, the process of auditioning which for many requires a self-tape as part of the initial audition. This became more popular during COVID and has stuck for many casting directors since. Therefore, our session learning about how to master the self-tape and how to adapt to acting through a screen was incredibly enriching.

With the knowledge we had been given, we were all allowed to choose a scene, which we would then use to record our very own self-tapes. We learnt about how to introduce ourselves, the necessary idents, and other technicalities of filming which can take your self-tape to the next level. After practicing in our own time and privacy, we filmed our tapes and sent them in to Mr Gould.

In our next lesson, we were lucky to have experienced screen actor, Daisy Wood-Davis come in and review our self-tapes individually. The whole class watched each other’s tapes, which was nerve racking, but everyone created a warm and safe environment. Daisy gave us each some feedback, telling us what she loved about our tapes and what she thought would enhance them before she began a session for us on acting for screen. It was such a fun experience stepping out of our comfort zones and trying a style and media of acting which was unknown to us all, alongside learning more about the industry and being able to receive feedback and learn from Daisy, an inspiring and generous working professional.”

Claudia, Upper Sixth

Improvisation

Our next valuable workshop came from Doug Quinn, who aided us in our ability to perform in a naturalistic style, something that, once again, has proven highly beneficial to the final performance of our Marvin’s Room production.  

 

“Acting Company provided many opportunities to meet amazing professionals, my favourite workshop was with Doug Quinn, who is on the board of administrations at Guilford School of Acting and Head of Performing Arts at Hurtwood House. Doug helped us to develop our naturalistic acting by performing different improvisation exercises to ensure that we listened and the focus was on the other person in the scene and not the internal world of our characters.

We were put into pairs where we each chose a mundane task to do whilst we enacted a scene, I was paired with Doug and our task was to tile a bathroom floor. By focusing on the task at hand, I was not overthinking my own performance or the trajectory of the scene, I was simply in the moment. Practicing improv allowed me to access a spontaneity in my performance that I had not previously discovered.

With Doug’s guidance I was able to focus on the scene and my scene partner which forced me to react naturalistically instead of overthinking and pre-empting the changes in the scene. I became far more immersed in the action, which not only helped me improve my improvisation skills, but also my wider performance skills, equipping me to deal with whatever my scene partner throws at me.”

Honor, Upper Sixth

Marvin’s Room

Finally, we were able to piece together all of the skills we have developed from these various workshops (and more!) and use all of our new skills to contribute to the play, enabling us to develop and establish our characters, in a way that we were not previously able to.

 

“Scott McPherson’s Marvin’s Room follows the story of a rare, conflicting, and fundamentally tragic family dynamic. Bessie and Lee are sisters, who have not seen each other in almost two decades, and they are reunited in the hopes that either Lee or her children (Hank, 17 and Charlie, around 9) are able to provide a lifesaving bone marrow transplant for Bessie, who has recently been diagnosed with Leukaemia. The play explores how Lee is impacted by her eldest son Hank being in a mental institution, whilst also delving into the relationship between her and Bessie, which is tense after Bessie has spent all her life caring for their father, Marvin, and aunt, Ruth. The play is one of turmoil, that sends the audience on a journey of emotional highs and lows, navigating the masterpiece that McPherson has been able to create. 

Having spent the majority of the Lower Sixth developing and refining our acting skills, being able to apply these to our production was a very exciting prospect. The audition process, whilst usually quite daunting, was a very pleasant experience as we individually chose a scene and character we wanted to portray, then asked another member of the company to join us whilst we performed. We workshopped and developed our scenes as a group over the course of two weeks, prior to a final casting decision being made.  

From there, we began to make steady and successful progress with the play. We worked through the play at a sensible pace, allowing us to complete it in good time before opening night, but also ensuring that each scene was given deserved attention. All members of the company attended rehearsals each week, whether or not they were performing in that rehearsal, enabling us to work collaboratively. This made the entire process feel not only seamless but also enjoyable as we have worked as a close group of friends on a project which we all feel very passionately about.”

Izzy, Upper Sixth

Conclusion

 

The Company hope that their audience for Marvin’s Room enjoys the performance, not only for the acting but also recognizing that this production, whilst officially started this year, has been in development since last academic year as their skillset gradually expanded.

Being able to apply all our possible knowledge to this production,
has been not only a thoroughly enjoyable experience,
but also an unforgettable one.
– The Downe House Acting Company, 2022-2024

Discover more about Drama at Downe House here.

 

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