Method behind the madness at East 15?
If you have ever worked at East 15, or with an East 15 actor, you will have probably heard the words ‘living history’ mentioned in hushed tones. Students and graduates of the drama school will know that the Living History Project is one of the cornerstones of training at East 15 and a key part of its BA (hons) acting course.
The project goes back to the beginnings of the school in 1961, and is facilitated by Gerry McAlpine. She was a student at East 15 in the early 1970s and worked with the founder Margaret Bury.
“The reason she founded the school,” she explains, “was that she was determined to continue the work of Theatre Workshop [Joan Littlewood’s theatre company]. She set out to solve how to marry inspired improvisational brilliance, which was what Theatre Workshop was famous for, with text and technique.”
Joan Littlewood’s company members were known for being masterful improvisers, as well as for creating powerful political pieces of theatre. It is that combination of improvisation and political theatre that inspires Living History.
The project, which is a compulsory module for all first years on the BA Acting and BA Acting (International) courses, is an extended improvisation that happens around the East 15 campus and takes place for a period of days, or even weeks.
McAlpine and her team select a specific period in history – for example the Bosnian War, the Russian Gulags, or the English Civil War – and after a period of historical research, the students create this world on campus, each becoming specific characters from the period and improvising around that framework. They only stop to go home each evening, otherwise everything is in character.
“The research is the most important thing,” explains McAlpine.
“People think you just get up and do shit. Well, we don’t. It’s based on intense research of the time. You can’t improvise unless you know what you’re saying, what you’re talking about. But it’s not a historic recreation. It’s our creating a small world in which things are going to happen.”
The project comes at the end of the students’ first year of training. In that first year, students have worked with McAlpine on the self, on behaviour; it’s a year of improvisation and training yourself to be open, imaginative and childlike in play.
When planning the Living History Project, the tutors ensure that the tasks and characters given to the first years develop them and extend their range.
At the end of the first year, following Living History, students start to concentrate increasingly on text. So Living History is the bridge into this – providing an opportunity to undertake thorough research of a period of history and apply what they’ve researched in an imaginative setting.
There is also a clear political agenda to the project. “I think we turn out better people,” says McAlpine. “We do change hearts and minds here as well, and that is a lot to do with humanity: how do people behave? It’s about human behaviour, obviously.”
The Living History Project is ingrained within the fabric of East 15, and not just metaphorically. The lake on campus was apparently build by student Teddy Kendal during a Living History project in the 1960s, and Gerry tells me there is a road at the back of the campus that was built by students during a more recent Living History improvisation. This gives some indication of just how intense the work can be.
From the outside, it is easy to be baffled by Living History. It isn’t something other drama schools offer – it is unique to East 15.
“Some people won’t get Living History,” says McAlpine. “And that’s okay. I think they lack imagination, personally.”
Most drama schools started as small modest affairs, often set up by people like Bury, with a philosophy of what actor training should be. Over the years the many changes to higher education and to the funding of higher education has seen these small centres of learning grow into larger empires, and often become swallowed up into bigger universities. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with this – and in most cases without such expansions, the schools would have probably closed. But the danger is that drama training starts to become homogenised, and that the unique qualities that founded a school become lost.
East 15 has moved with the times, it has had to, and should have to. But it is gratifying to see that at the heart of its training there are still projects like Living History, and still teachers like McAlpine that ingrain the principles of the founders into the training of a 21st-century actor.
Our Living History project was the Bosnian War, which took place between 1992 and 1995.
I first heard about Living History when I was applying for drama schools, it’s one of the things that made East 15 stand out for me. I was incredibly excited by the prospect, it sounded like an actor’s dream. East 15 is a method school and Living History is the ultimate method actor’s project.
Our project was terrifying. After several weeks of intensive research into the Bosnian War, Bosnian culture and religion and the country itself, we each were given three characteristics: an age, religion and a family. I was given a 42-year-old Muslim woman with two children and a husband. My characteristics were traditional, amiable and uncomplicated. After a dictionary search of ‘amiable’, I realised our tutors were clearly trying to bring out a different side of me. Living History characters are generally sorted into two categories: the oppressors and the oppressed. This gives some actors the chance to take charge while others need to learn to stand down and be led.
The most amazing thing about Living History is that it shows you how far you can go as an actor. When you are in the environment and mindset to be able to go 99% ‘character brain’ and 1% ‘actor brain’, you discover parts of yourself and emotional depths that you didn’t know were accessible to you.
It makes everything else seem tame. It also taught me the importance of research. You cannot dive into a play without understanding its history, its world and the world of your character. You must always do the work to be able to create something real. Living History helps to create what I believe defines an East 15 actor – spontaneity, fearlessness and gumption.
My Living History Project was set in one of the Gulags established during Stalin’s rule in Soviet Russia.
I remember first reading about Living History from the East 15 website before auditioning and it sounded amazing. Once you get there and ask the older students about it, they tended to just smile and say something along the lines of “just wait and see – it’s amazing”. Which made me even more excited. The whole thing was shrouded in mystery.
I remember how immersed we all got the longer it went on. The blazing heat, the rags of clothing we had to wear, the scraps of food, the whole environment made everything so real – all sorts of genuinely organic moments came out of nowhere. People fell in love and rivalries were formed, it was all quite tough to shake off at the end of the day.
The beauty of it all, five years on, is that there are events that happened during it I’m still unaware of. Things that had nothing to do with my character but were a defining moment for others. We’ll probably all never know everything that went on.
It showed me how, if you trust it and give yourself over to your instincts instead of trying to analyse every little thing, it can lead you down some unexpectedly wonderful paths.
The biggest thing I’ve done since leaving drama school was playing a young man with autism in the BBC1 drama Undercover. Often actors will start with lots of notes and character lists: ‘What do I want?’, ‘What am I doing?’. That felt wrong for my character Dan. I found I discovered him better approaching him the way we approached Living History. By being open, instinctive, playful and reactive, I even stayed in character during the filming of some scenes. It helped a lot.
Our Living History project was the Bosnian War, which was interesting as it was less than 30 years ago. It made us feel like it was still fresh in the public consciousness, which it is: victims are still suffering. News from the war crime tribunals was coming in even as we researched the project. It was eerie and it made a lot of us have a level of respect for what we were doing.
I remember hearing whispers about the project from the third years, some of them would jokingly refer to it as “hell” or talk about it like it was torture. We’re told not to divulge many details about it after you go through it yourself to make it as new as possible for the first years, so it becomes this mythical beast looming at the end of the year. I personally couldn’t wait to get stuck in and see how far I could go into it.
I think I’ve definitely tried to keep a boldness in my imagination. During Living History you have to feel the dangers of the world you’re in even if your captors are wearing shabby costumes and pointing wooden guns at you. You just have to believe it and go for it. I think that’s what Living History and East 15 are all about. Being brave. Or ‘jumping in the pond’, as we like to say.