Penny Pepper talks to some of the actors who have come through Graeae Theatre Company's performance training for aspiring actors with sensory and physical disabilities as she experiences Missing Pieces for herself
The alarm clocked beeped. It was 6.50am on a bright September morning yet the noise signalled more than a new early get-up time. For as much as it announced closure on my 18 month wait to begin Graeae's in-depth training scheme, it heralded this new beginning in my life. After a prolonged illness which kept me out of Missing Piece 4, I was ready for my first day on the induction week of Missing Piece 5.
I'd discussed Missing Piece 5 with actor Sophie Partridge - recently in Graeae's George Dandin. Sophie did the first Missing Piece at Sadler's Wells. She explained how Missing Piece 1 differed: It was a three month, intensive course (10-5, 5 days a week), resulting in two different productions. There was no academic element to it - it was purely hands-on, though we were supposed to have weekly lectures on things like audition techniques, acting CVs etc. I asked her if she was glad to have done it and had it helped her career. Yes! I found a life! A chance to be Me. It sounds corny but I really did find my Missing Piece!
Seeing as the course has developed radically over the years, how does she assess it now? I wouldn't have changed MP1. And before MP, I had no acting experience and no real focus or aspirations to even have a career. Because it gave me my first professional performance opportunity and access to people in the industry, it enabled me to then get further work.
After Sadler's Wells and then Manchester, Missing Piece made its home at the London Metropolitan University (LMU). It's been based at LMU on the Holloway Road campus for the last three years, and is integrated into university life. On the first year at LMU, Liz Carr MP3 graduate, comedienne par excellence and all round performing powerhouse, says: I've absolutely no regrets that I did it. Both directly and indirectly it changed my life - got me into acting, gave me the taste of living in London, got me known by Graeae, got me exposure, got me friends in London, gave a new spark to my life, helped me to fulfil an ambition, a dream. Worth it? Damn right!
Liz's words calmed my nerves and stirred my excitement. The idea of university - and a whole academic year of study - was scary. Such opportunities were not available when I sprung out of segregated education and long term care institutions at 18. Would I feel too old? Would I feel desperately out of place? The campus is huge and labyrinthine and I knew getting lost would just have to be something I adjusted to.
But after all my anxieties, induction week was fun and relaxed - full of name games, group bonding and group rules. We learn quickly to laugh, to appreciate and support each other with our many different impairments. A group of eight, our ages range from a visually impaired 19 year old, to some oldster in a wheelchair (ahem). The bonding process is intriguing as preconceptions and expectations are challenged to be replaced by greater awareness of who we all are. And we all work on the group dynamic extra hard by going to the student bar afterwards, by week three…
And so time flies by…
MP4 graduate Craig Newport currently working on a number of writing projects and applying for any acting job I can, assured me as the nitty-gritty of hard learning begins. MP4 was wonderful. I loved every minute of every day. I now have a basic understanding of the industry and a corpus of skills to use and expand that will render me useful in my chosen career. I wondered whether he would change anything, and does he have any advice. The students should be helped to realise that it is bloody hard work. And their own responsibility, but an enormous privilege. As for changing things - maybe stronger discipline. More time on Singing, Musical Theatre, Radio/TV. Maybe MP5 will incorporate all these things.
Finding the missing pieces
We're taken through the expectations that Graeae and LMU have of us as students on Missing Piece - all rather daunting but then, I love a challenge. LMU is in the top five of Performing Arts schools in the UK and as Craig says, we are embarking on a commitment - to ourselves, to LMU and to Graeae who have selected us through the application and audition process.
Before I can pause for breath we're on to acting skills and taken through Laban Efforts. A class or so later and we are into Stanislavski - the granddaddy of naturalistic acting. All the practical classes are supported by Modern Theatre Practice lectures, where we run through the most historically important figures and movements.
Voice and movement
There are two voice classes. Christopher builds our strength and projection, while visually impaired tutor and writer, Alex Bulmer, focuses on voice and text. Very soon there will also be Musical Theatre on a Friday, where I am looking forward to singing again. Besides, I sign up for every single option available - after all, will this opportunity come again?
Movement classes on a Thursdays just about finish us off stamina-wise but we all seem to enjoy pushing our parameters, however they are defined. I've even mastered my own version on a ballet position and on week four we do an amazing, intense exercise in pairs called grazing which helps us become comfortable with touching each other - actors have to after all!
All too soon we begin work on our individual solo performances, which we will do for an audience in December. My mind is in creative overdrive as we have access to every form of media one could wish for. So even though I am a humble story teller at heart I am excited by taking a multimedia approach to my piece to combine live performance with film and music, to have integrated signing and audio description.
One thing that takes getting used to is the sheer drive of this course. Missing Piece is tough - on the body, on the intellect and the emotions. It is not a soft option, and it's often said that it is on a level with a degree first year. Yet we are constantly reminded that the acting profession as a whole is a demanding one. You have to be the best you can be. Otherwise, you will simply not be employable - and as disabled actors the pressures are even greater.
Time drives me on. It's not a conveyor belt, more a rollercoaster. I am determined to absorb every last experience I am given this year so am in five days a week, roughly 10 am to 5pm now tutorials and solo performance rehearsals are starting. Yet I love it very much! Every stimulating, challenging, emotional and anxious moment. I already addicted - and yes, while I'm on only week 5 - I already wonder what new excitement will fill the gap when Missing Piece is over. Lots of lovely, varied creative performance and writing projects I hope!
Graeae and London Met have successfully run Missing Piece in partnership over the last three years. However, the teams involved have made a decision to cancel MP6 in order to re-evaluate and re-structure the Missing Piece in line with current trends towards full access and inclusion in mainstream performing arts training for students with physical disabilities and sensory impairments. We will be announcing a new programme of work in the near future which will develop and expand this innovative training partnership.