With the UK in lockdown due to the coronavirus crisis, Sarah Lambie takes a look at the online resources available to performers who are hoping to improve their singing, dancing and acting techniques from home
In early March, before the Covid-19 pandemic and its resulting lockdown was anywhere on the horizon for me, I bemoaned to my partner the fact that bill-paying life never affords me the opportunity to work full-time as an actor. I posited an imaginary circumstance in which I was able to take a six-month sabbatical from ‘everything else’ and really commit myself to honing my skills – to work with a disciplined routine on practising my instruments, dance, singing, learning and working on accents and dialect. Things I did as part of my drama school training but which, shamefully, I haven’t had the time to do since.
Unbelievably, as I write this, exactly three weeks have passed and, in circumstances I never could have imagined, I have been given exactly that opportunity. However, I can’t go to a dance class, visit a singing teacher or travel to Belfast or Newcastle to work on those tricky vowels. So, instead, here is a rundown of resources we performers can use to make the most of this time, and to emerge when the theatres reopen at the end of it upskilled, fit, confident and raring to go.
Accent/dialect work is often done on a job-by-job basis, learning an accent with a voice coach while in rehearsal for a particular production. However, there is no denying that this time could be well used by building on the actor’s toolbox of accents, to increase chances of being auditioned for roles after the Covid-19 outbreak.
The International Dialects of English Archive is a comprehensive free catalogue of recorded voice samples from England and around the world. Originally created in 1998 by dialect coach Paul Meier, IDEA is now the largest archive of its kind.
This time could be well used by building on the actor’s toolbox of accents
As well as the catalogue of samples, there are phonetic transcriptions for some accents, meaning you can use the ‘rules’ of an accent phonetically in any speech you are learning. Just for fun, ‘test your ear’ and ‘test your comprehension’ exercises are available based on some of the voice recordings, and a ‘play names and terms’ page lists popular theatre plays that feature difficult-to-pronounce place and given names, spoken by native speakers. Examples include Irish words in plays by Brian Friel and Martin McDonagh and Russian in Chekhov’s works.
Voice and dialect coach Catherine Weate is one half of the team behind The Real Accent App – for England, the US, Celtic Nations and Europe – which operates in a similar way to IDEA but adds step-by-step breakdowns for each accent and ‘record’ and ‘compare’ functions. These cost £12.99 each.
Jonathan Pitches, professor of Theatre and Performance at the University of Leeds, offers a free two-week Massive Online Open Course, introducing the techniques and theories of theatre director Vsevolod Meyerhold. Designed as an introductory course for pre-university students, but of value to anyone not familiar with the Russian practitioner’s work, Physical Theatre: Exploring the Slap introduces biomechanics through a mixture of video, animation, discussion forums and practical exercises.
As well as the professional skills development benefits of practising dance through this period of isolation, there is an obvious health benefit. A couple of paid-for, genre-specific courses can be found on online learning platforms Udemy and Operation Tap for jazz and tap dance, with an intermediate jazz dance option also available.
Meanwhile, a number of American dance studios offer online classes for professionals. The respected CLI Studios is offering its classes for free during the pandemic, though you are limited to the Pacific time-zone if you want to participate in these classes live.
At Dance Plug, a number of subscription packages offer unlimited access to hundreds of videos covering technique and choreography for many dance styles, and you can watch and follow them in your own time.
Actor-musician work has been on the rise for some years now, and for many this may be a good time to brush up on an instrument you learned when you were younger. If you wish to pay for instrumental tuition online, good starting points would be online courses from providers such as Udemy or private tuition through Your Space Music Lessons. Both options come with a fee, but it is much lower than private tuition in person.
Acting is arguably the most difficult skill to develop online. While subscription websites such as Masterclass offer videos with Hollywood big names including Natalie Portman and Helen Mirren, and their perspectives may well be extremely interesting, it is harder to classify this as ‘training’.
The Meisner technique is a system that some teachers characterise as internet-friendly, given it requires only two people. A few coaches offer online sessions, though time difference must be taken into account as most are based in the United States. One example is Wendy Ward, whose website Online Acting Classes offers ‘live online acting training’ beginning with a complimentary consultation. Working with Ward carries a fairly substantial fee (eight private sessions costs $375)
depending on whether you work one-on-one or in groups, and on frequency of use.
As I write, however, the Actors Centre in London has announced it is working on a programme of online workshops and initiatives, which were launched this week. These consist of some member favourites from the April-June season, as well as the addition of some new workshops. There will be a cost attached to certain workshops, but it will be heavily reduced from standard prices and there will also be a number of pay-what-you-can workshops and masterclasses.
As soon as theatres and film productions began to close, many casting directors took to Twitter to offer their support to actors in the form of one-to-one sessions (many of which are now being curated for members by Spotlight) or an open invitation to send in self-tapes. Searching Twitter for #CastingCrushesCorona will produce several tweets containing these invitations. Casting director Manuel Puro and his team are already offering self-tape training at Puro Casting.
Finally, for the many actors thinking of using this time to get down on paper that script they’ve always planned to write, free writing courses can be found from Michigan State University, beginning on March 23, and from the University of East Anglia, beginning on March 30.