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Susan Elkin: Fitness has taken a leading role in acting preparation

A scene from Hetty Feather. Photo: Donald Cooper A scene from Hetty Feather. Photo: Donald Cooper
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Sally Cookson’s delightful show Hetty Feather, based on Jacqueline Wilson’s novel of the same name, tours again from this July until April 2016. And it is back in the West End for a month from August 6. I saw and reviewed it twice last year and was forcibly struck by (among many other things) the vibrantly skilled movement work as the cast of six nipped lithely up ladders and swung on aerial hoops. Fact: you need considerable supple fitness to be in this show.

When I sat in on a Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama stage combat class led by fight director Kevin McCurdy, I watched a group of second year acting students at work. First they underwent an energetic, rhythmic warm up. It is almost a dance routine with loud music, star jumps, press-ups, sprint-and-dodge, some yoga-esque twists and much more for a full 10 minutes. So fit were these students that no one was even out of breath at the end. Then they practised, using a cushioned shield, how to deliver a body kick. Throughout the session I was acutely aware that you need athleticism and a great deal of ordinary healthy fitness to be any good at this.

A 21st century actor’s life and work demands considerable physical strength

My point is that a 21st century actor’s life and work demands considerable physical strength and stamina and I don’t think there’s enough emphasis on it when we talk to potential trainees and it certainly isn’t something understood by Joe or Joanna Public. Modern actors have to be super fit in order to deal with what the profession might throw at them – from the requirement to be present (in every sense) in eight shows a week to pleasing the director who wants you to hold a handstand for three minutes or climb 20 feet up a rope. It used to be different. We never saw, say, Edith Evans shinning up rigging or John Gielgud turning cartwheels but their theatrical descendants have to take these things in their stride.

It has always applied to dancers of course, but it seems to me that every actor is now also expected to be an athlete. Roles, and/or directorial ideas about them, routinely require running, jumping, climbing, balancing in unlikely positions (often while speaking – anyone remember Antony Sher’s 1993 Tamburlaine the Great?) not to mention dancing. And it has to look as effortless as ballet.

The work itself seems to have become more intensive too with actors often having to work very long, strenuous hours, especially when they’re in training or at the beginning of their careers. They work and rehearse for very long stretches, often through weekends as well. And you can’t do it if you’re not extremely fit.

Is anyone advising teenagers who think they want a career in performing arts that, if they’re serious, it is essential to get as fit as they can? It means steering clear of tobacco, alcohol, drugs and junk food. You also need to maintain a sensible weight, get as much exercise as possible and develop physical stamina and skills as well as making time for enough sleep. Oh yes, I know it sounds dull and preachy but how badly do you really want to be a professional performer?

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