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Olivier Award-winning Director, Donnacadh O’Briain: “The Drama is Always First for Me”

Donnacadh O’Briain is an Olivier Award-winning director whose productions have played at The Royal Shakespeare Company, in the West End, and internationally. In 2017 his production of Rotterdam received an Olivier for Outstanding Achievement in an Affiliate Theatre and went on to play at The Arts Theatre (West End) before embarking on a UK tour. His other credits include Always Orange (RSC), PEEP (a unique cross art form pop up theatre show) and the multi-award winning Electrolyte (Wildcard / Edinburgh / UK Tour).

I first worked with Donnacadh on Time and the Conways by J.B Priestly at The Royal Birmingham Conservatoire in 2012. He was the first director I’d worked with that expressed no desire to block the play. The philosophy (it seemed to me) was that if we immersed ourselves in the landscape of the play and knew every inch of it in vivid detail – both psychologically and somatically – then, with solid stage craft supporting us, the blocking would take care of itself. With no set staging to adhere to, we were free to remain open to our impulses and that meant you couldn’t stop listening, not for a second, because you were never quite certain what might happen next. Whilst we did collabortively establish some structure to our movement and action by opening night, we never lost that sense of freedom and spontaneity. To me, as a young actor, this was liberating.

Another technique which enabled such freedom in rehearsal was a total ban of scripts on stage, right from day one; something which Donnacadh discusses further in this interview some eight years later. Here’s what he had to say:

Could you give us an insight into the creative process behind Rotterdam, your Olivier Award-winning production?

Well, I read a lot of unproduced plays until I found a gem. That was a big part of it – had the play not been so accomplished, very little else would have happened. After that there’s no doubt that finding actors who could bring it to life was equally as important. Once I had those key elements the next phase was about creating an environment that would nurture a deep understanding of the characters, and a relentless commitment to representing them fully and honestly in the work…and finding the laughs! It’s a very funny play, though finding the comedy came later in the process, the drama is always first for me. In terms of getting the company to really make the play sing, I use a series of approaches and exercises that I’ve developed over the years; a mix of things I’ve picked up. One important element is that I use line feeding instead of scripts so that whenever actors are on their feet, their bodies and eyes are free to connect and be present, rather than have the distraction of the script which can shut down both intimacy and one half of the body. The simplest way of putting it is that I try to embed the possibility that anyone can do anything at any time, through a combination of improvisational elements and a disinclination to work towards staging in the first couple of weeks. I want to get a company working together with real immediacy, understanding and playfulness, and once they’re there, directing the play is easy.

Are there any particular qualities that you look for when auditioning actors, irrespective of the role?

I suppose any director wants to get a feel that someone will bring a positive, open and creative energy to rehearsals, both because you need that yourself and because the other actors need it. How you judge that is hard to express in words. Also, I look for someone who is bringing empathy for their character, who is finding a connection.

Many proactive actors like to contact directors. Would you generally encourage actors to reach out to you or is it better to go through casting directors for specific productions?

I don’t have any objection to being contacted directly. I try to respond when actors do. It certainly increases the chances of being noticed but inevitably you can only meet a small number of actors for any role.

When you’re casting a play, do you have any audition room bugbears that actors do?

It’s frustrating when someone is underprepared, it can feel like they’ve not given themselves a fair chance or me the opportunity to really know whether they’re right or not. The more prepared you are the more of yourself you can show and the more you can connect to the material. If someone’s borderline suitable but they’ve put in the work, learned the text etc, then they give themselves a better shot at getting a call back. I know how time consuming learning the text can be, but I do think it gives you an advantage.

Always Orange (RSC, 2016)
Always Orange (RSC, 2016) Photo by Richard Lacos

What has been your favourite production to direct and why?

Impossible to say really. In recent times, I really enjoyed directing Always Orange for the RSC. I really felt that I was able to work exactly the way I wanted to. And also Philistines for RADA, due to the challenge of directing such a huge play – made all the more huge as I added a whole off-stage abstract movement element. Day after day we worked on character through table work and improvisation and pushed ourselves in the scene work to go emotionally and intellectually to the places the characters go. I was able to keep testing my aesthetic and pushing at the boundaries of the style to see how far it could go. We were playing with naturalism, expressionism and metatheatricallity with a bit of music-hall and melodrama thrown in; it’s a mad play and I wanted us to be able to serve all its contradictions. It was relentless, but the level of ambition and determination in the room was incredibly exciting.

What’s next for you?

Next up I’m directing a new play I’m co-writing about border control for Ice & Fire, then opening Electrolyte in London and New York before sending it off on an international tour. I’m also making a new show, Arms Flung Wide, about helping, with Bella Heesom and our company All About You, and directing a one person show for Edinburgh called A Story of Destiny. And spending as much time as possible with my kids – 3, 0.5 & 0.5 (ages not names).

What do you mean when you say that Arms Flung Wide is about helping?

Well, it’s in part a biographical piece about a woman with MS who progressively needs more help as her illness develops. Her daughter, amongst others, helps to manage many of her most basic human needs. More broadly it will be about the fact that we as individuals need help – or to use a more politicised word, co-operation – to do anything. In part, we may dramatise that idea by the audience needing to help Bella in order to actually complete the show itself.

Finally, just for fun, could you describe the secret to acting in a cryptic, abstract metaphor?

Drop your shopping, take off your coat and show us your secret dance.


0/7/02/2020 Weekly Acting Workout With Donnacadh O’Briain: Donnacadh is running laboratory-style rehearsal days over the next seven weeks. A chance to stretch the muscles for the new year, geared towards anyone in a period of auditions but missing the rehearsal room. The days are a drop-in style so you can attend as many or as few as you like.

https://www.wildcardtheatre.co.uk/artist-development/workshops/

How to Utilise Social Media: A Guide for Actors and Creatives

The performing arts industry is changing. More and more casting directors, directors, agents and theatres use social media as a vehicle for their latest project, and I’m not just talking about student films and profit shares. Major castings are regularly opened up to the twittersphere; at the time of writing this, a quick search on Twitter found recent casting calls from Kahleen Crawford (‘I, Daniel Blake’, ‘The Miniaturist’), Jina Jay (‘Bird Box’, ‘Rogue One: A Star Wars Story’) and Des Hamilton (‘This Is England’, ‘Bronson’). It’s never been more important for actors to have an online presence and if utilised correctly, social media can be an incredibly powerful tool. But where to start?

Which Social Media Platforms to Use

The three main platforms are:

Facebook
Facebook has way over 2 billion users and is generally the most popular social media platform out there. It far outweighs Twitter in terms of global active users, however, for members of the performing arts industry specifically, Twitter feels like it hosts the larger and more active community.

Aside from creating a Facebook profile, you can also:

  • Create a business page which allows you to run targeted adverts and monitor statistics on your posts. For example, audience reach
  • Connect with online communities (groups) of creatives
  • Host events and invite guests

Facebook is great at allowing people to have long discussions without comments getting lost in long Twitter threads.

Twitter
On Twitter you don’t have friends, you have followers, and it’s this detachment that separates it from Facebook. Following someone on Twitter doesn’t carry the same meaningful relationship that is associated with friending on Facebook. Twitter is a great place to stay up to date with the latest news, topics, projects and campaigns from industry professionals. There’s also a wonderful community of creatives that support each other by sharing CVs, showreels, advice and daily inspiration. Right now, Twitter feels like the place to be for creatives. If you only had time in your life for one social network, I’d argue that Twitter would be the most valuable.

Instagram
Instagram is a visual platform. People follow accounts that post images and videos that they’re interested in. Instagram is perfect for keeping your followers up to date with what you’re working on: a backstage photo of the cast or a behind the scenes snap on set for example. It’s also one more place to stay up to date with industry goings-on. Follow your favourite theatre festival, headshot photographer, actor, casting director…you get the idea!

Personal vs Professional

If you want to use social media in a professional capacity, you may want to keep your personal accounts separate. Creating a new account for you as an actor/creative will allow you to keep your content relevant and those embarrassing holiday photos private. Employers may vet their actors before employing them, and even if they don’t the public certainly will so be extremely careful about what you put out onto the internet. There have been countless examples of when an inappropriate tweet posted ten years ago has come back to haunt an actor and ultimately cost them their career. A private, personal account is a safer forum to express yourself but there is no guarantee something won’t get out. As a professional, the safest option is to never post anything unseemly in the first place. Think before you post.

How to Get More Followers

Getting more followers comes down to being active, relevant and posting high-quality content. Being an active social media user as a professional can feel like a full-time job, especially when working across multiple platforms, so it’s important that you retain a level of authenticity in your online persona.

Top tips:

  • Follow everyone you’re interested in.
  • Engage in their posts: like, comment, share.
  • Join a community. There are plenty of groups on Facebook to get involved with, like Actors UK or The British Actors Network. Also, search for your local acting community on Facebook as they’re bound to have a group. On Twitter, you can follow community-based Twitter accounts such as @SupportBritish or my own account, @TheActorsPlanet.
  • Get involved in community-oriented hashtag campaigns. New hashtags are always popping up, encouraging actors and creatives to connect, share and support each other. #ShowreelShareDay #OVConnect #HeadshotCVShare #LookingForRepresentation. These hashtags are current at the time of writing this article. Stay connected to keep up with the latest hashtag trends.
  • Be generous. Don’t just use your social media for constant promotion – who wants to see that in their news feed every day? Spend time engaging with and supporting others.
  • Link your social media profiles to your Spotlight CV.
  • Be yourself. Hopefully, your personality makes you stand out as an actor, so let it make you stand out on social media too.

What to Share and Where

Twitter has a 280 character limit, which isn’t a huge amount. It’s perfect for when you want to start or join a conversation about industry-related news by throwing in your short and concise two-pennies. It’s also great for posting external links to the latest articles or blog entries.

Facebook has no limit on post length and therefore is better suited to more in-depth posts. I’ve seen countless pitches for crowdfunding on Facebook that have drummed up huge support and made a film project possible that otherwise wouldn’t have been. It’s also an invaluable source of advice and support from other creatives. However, a word of warning: posting in some of the bigger acting groups on Facebook can open you up to a deluge of well-meant advice that isn’t always that useful. As with any forum on the internet, take everything with a pinch of salt.

Instagram is for all your photos and videos. Let people know what you’re up to. With both Instagram and Facebook, you can either post content to your profile or post to your story, the latter giving your followers a glimpse into your life that’s then available to view for 24 hours. Another word of warning: be careful what you post. Once it’s on Instagram, even if it’s only on there temporarily in your story, it’s pretty much immortalised and inappropriate content could come back later in your career to bite you.

When to Post

When you have something to say or share you want to maximise engagement and reach as big an audience as possible. To do this, you’ll want to get a general idea of when the individual social networks are at their busiest. A quick Google search will return a plethora of surveys and studies into the best times to post. Here’s an article by Sprout Social that tracks engagement over the course of a day for each day of the week.

If you’re working two jobs and running to auditions in between, you may find posting at specific times difficult. That’s where social media schedulers come in. There is a multitude of software available that allows you to compose posts and publish them automatically at set times across a wide range of social media platforms simultaneously. A scheduler can make your life easier if you don’t have a lot of time and/or want to post regularly. A scheduler isn’t going to make you an overnight social media success, but it might just help to manage your time.

Two of the most popular schedulers are Hootsuite and Buffer. Both have free and paid plans available.

Casting Calls

At the top of this article, I mentioned a few big casting directors who’ve recently put castings out on social media. Only this week I’ve seen several casting calls for Netflix films on Twitter. If you see something you like, research the casting director and follow their social media account. It’s perfectly possible to land yourself a big casting by responding to a post. Having said that, social media is also crammed full of not-so-good jobs and opportunities. Through my community-based Twitter account, @TheActorsPlanet, I recently started the hashtag campaign #PaidOrNot which strives for clarity and transparency in casting calls posted on Twitter. Equity also started the hashtag #ProfessionallyMadeProfessionallyPaid which is their campaign for decent pay. Make sure you find out the details for any opportunity you apply for and research the person who made the post to make sure they are a genuine, reputable employer. There are lots of dodgy casting calls out there that evade the moderation of Equity and Spotlight.

For more information on Equity’s #ProfessionallyMadeProfessionallyPaid campaign follow @EquityLPNP.

The Laid Back Approach

As useful as social media can be it can also be addictive and demoralising. The instant validation of twenty likes and six retweets is a great feeling! So when your next tweet that you’re passionate about gets no engagement at all, it can leave you feeling low, wondering what went wrong. You can spend hours trawling Google, reading articles like this, learning how to utilise social media and absorbing all the statistics and trends you like, but what you can never prepare for is the unknown variable. Sometimes a post gets missed. It ticks all the right boxes but for some reason, it simply falls through the cracks. My advice is not to invest too much in likes and shares. Post because you want to and don’t get too bogged down in what comes after.

Who to Follow

Facebook Groups

Actors UK
British Actors Network
Bossy (for women and non-binary people)
Look for your region-specific acting groups e.g. Midlands Actors and Extras

Twitter

@SupportBritish
@TheActorsPlanet

@BAMEBAMEBAMEE (in support of B.A.M.E. artists)
@SpotlightUK
@EquityUK
@ShowreelShare
Look up your regional theatre


@SpotlightUK
@EquityUK
@ShowreelShare
Look up your regional theatre

Lastly, you can follow me on Twitter here: @kieranvyas

Did I miss something? Share your advice in the comment section below.

A Modern Guide to Auditioning for Drama School

When I auditioned for drama school I didn’t have a clue what I was doing. Retrospectively, I can identify the choices I made that led to me being accepted, however, I can’t quite remember which of those choices were intentional, instinctual, or just good luck. Since then I’ve spent many years working as an actor, director and coach, and now have experience on both sides of the panel. What I’ve realised is that there are many variables when considering an applicant for drama school (some of them you can control and others you can’t), but there are far fewer reasons for rejection. Here are some of what I consider to be the most important aspects of an audition that the panel are looking for.

Differentiation

Most applicants are aware that it’s important to choose two contrasting pieces when selecting a classical and contemporary monologue for auditions, but what does that actually mean? Selecting two different genres – a tragic Shakespeare and comedic contemporary for example – doesn’t cut it if you then play yourself in both roles. Your pieces need to demonstrate two very different characters, offering the panel two sides to you as an actor. Whether it’s a shift in power, status, temperament, energy, physicality or all of the above, the difference between your characters should go beyond the genres of the pieces and be clearly discernible. Often I see actors presenting two similar versions of themselves, regardless of what the roles demand. To quote Andrew Potter (Royal Birmingham Conservatoire acting tutor and director): ‘It’s your job to move you to the character. Don’t pull the character to you.’

Given Circumstances

In order to fully understand the context surrounding your pieces, you need to question everything. Why are you saying these words? Where have you come from? What’s just happened? Who’s in the room? What’s your relationship to the other person? Where are you? Every detail that there is to unpick, unpick it. Read the whole play and understand everything you can about what led your character to this moment, especially, the moments leading up to your monologue. A character doesn’t usually know what they’re going to say, they discover it in the moment, and every nuance is a response defined by a (fictional) lifetime of three-dimensional backstory.

Connection (Who are you speaking to?)

A monologue is still a dialogue. Acting isn’t often about you, it’s usually about the person opposite you, and that shouldn’t change just because that person happens to be imaginary. In some ways it gives you more freedom; being able to control their reactions within your imagination and respond as you will. Connecting with the other character in the scene is vital. Every line you deliver should affect them and prompt (imagined) responses, which you, in turn, must respond to. Not only does this give your performance life and purpose, but it also demonstrates the power of your imagination – one of the actor’s greatest and most necessary tools. Know who you’re speaking to and why. This doesn’t change if you’re addressing the audience, the same principle applies.

Stakes

The panel wants to be excited. I frequently work with actors who play it safe and undermine the true stakes of the piece. Often I hear, ‘I don’t want to overact’. Most of the time, in my experience, an actor that is afraid of overacting is probably not acting at all but simply reciting lines. Ask yourself, what has this character got to lose? Connect with the text and let it inspire a passionate performance. The panel will commend you for throwing yourself in. One caveat to this is to make sure you don’t wash out the detail from your speech. They want to see that your heart’s in it but playing anger from start to finish or crying through every line won’t get you very far. The specificity and variety in your performance are just as important – seek it out, consider the stakes and commit to your choices wholeheartedly.

Personality

Last but not least…How you come across in an audition does have an effect on the panel’s decision. They want to know if you’re suited to the programme, whether you’ll fit in with the other students and if you have a natural spark about you. The best advice I can give is to be yourself. Don’t try and show them what you think they’re looking for…you don’t know what they’re looking for. Despite nerves, take a deep breath and just be you.

By Kieran Vyas

Headshot Hunter’s Guide to Headshots

As an actor and agent, I know how essential it is to have a good headshot. When I started my search as a young aspiring actor to get my own headshots done, it was a big financial investment I was anxious to get right. I knew good headshots would be vital to get auditions and, ultimately, paid work.

It was difficult to choose a photographer who would suit me and give me the best results from the sea of professional photographers out there. It was extremely time-consuming trawling through photographer listings, then visiting their individual websites to find out what they offered. Photographers emphasised different aspects of their services so comparison was really tricky. All my drama school peers were experiencing the same problems.

My ideal would have been to have the details of all photographers on one website, but that didn’t exist, so I decided to develop a website service myself, and Headshot Hunter is the result!

 

Headshot Hunter

Headshot Hunter is a photographer search, comparison and review website that holds the details of around 70 headshot photographers from all over the UK. The website allows you to search for and compare photographers’ packages. You can refine your search and Headshot Hunter will identify photographers that fit your requirements in areas such as budget, location, style and turnaround time. You can also browse headshots for photographs that you like or feel would match your own style and create a shortlist, identifying suitable photographers.

There is plenty of advice on the website about what makes a good headshot and the factors you need to consider when deciding which photographer best suits your needs. Here is my guide to help you get started.

 

What style of photograph do you want?

Style is the most important aspect – if you like the photographer’s style of headshot, you are more likely to be happy with the end result from that photographer. Remember, you may have to live with it for several years.  The style needs to reflect the sort of castings you are looking for, eg classical theatre, aspirational commercial, urban, gritty TV etc.

Studio or natural lighting? Indoor or outdoor?

It really depends on your preferred style, there is no rule. I would say outside and the use of natural light can be more urban or natural, and studio is generally more dramatic or theatrical.

How much time do I need?

Frankly, the more time the better, especially if it’s your first time. You need at least one hour, but if you’re after a range of looks, you should be looking at at least one to two hours. If you’re comfortable with the photographer already or are only looking for one particular shot then less time is obviously fine.

What do professional headshots cost?

Prices range from £50 to £580. £150 is about standard price, for anything over £300 you are usually paying for the photographer’s reputation, which can be a good thing. Price does not necessarily mean quality or results, but if you find a photographer that you think can give you the results you need, then it may well be worth the money in the long run.

How should I prepare for a session?

Firstly, decide how you want your headshots to represent you – remember they are a marketing tool. Try to arrive with an idea of what you want from the session: what roles do you usually go up for? What roles do you want to go up for? If you already have headshots, do they need completely updating or do you just need a few new looks?  The more preparation you do the easier it will be.

Secondly, make sure you are physically and mentally ready for the shoot. Drink plenty of water the week prior to the shoot and don’t go out drinking the night before or this will show in your photos! It is helpful for the photographer to see any of your previous headshots. If you have any general headshots that you like, they can also be a good reference for the photographer. Go in prepared then just relax and enjoy the session. Any little blemishes on the day can be edited out so no need to panic!

What should I wear?

There are no set rules, but remember to wear something you feel good in and relaxed in. Being comfortable will show through in your photos. However, if you stuff your shirts in a bag they will look like they were stuffed in a bag for the shoot! Take a few tops. Generally, darker, solid colours tend to work best. Avoid bold patterns and logos as they are distracting. Bring a few options, with varied necklines, but not too wide or low, allowing the top to frame your face. If you wear glasses, bring them, although sometimes they can distract away from your eyes, so take contact lenses as well if you have them. Try to avoid accessories such as necklaces and earrings, they will take the focus away from your face.

What about hair and makeup?

Less is more. It’s always easier for people to imagine you with more makeup on, not so easy to imagine you with less. Unique features are what make you stand out and make others sit up and take notice so don’t hide those freckles or scars!

Wear your hair how you normally would, but do experiment with a few different styles before your shoot. For women, it’s always worth trying a few looks with your hair up, as it can affect your age range and can look very ‘period’ or ‘classical’. Don’t cut your hair the day before your shoot! Give your hair a few days to relax after a cut. Think about what your hairstyle says about you, your image and, ultimately, your casting. You want to look like you will when you turn up to the audition!

Black and white or colour?

Most agents and casting directors will want to see colour headshots as close to what you look like as possible. Very rarely, a black & white headshot may work for a very particular casting but colour headshots are now the norm and to not have them will go against you. If the photographer is shooting using a digital camera, then you should be able to have both at no extra cost, as turning an image to black and white is literally a click of a button. Saying this, if you do require black and white shots, many photographers can spend a lot of time converting images into black & white to give them the same quality of shooting with film.  Check this with the photographer first, it does make a difference.

How many headshots do I need?

You need one ‘main shot’: this is your best shot that should be engaging and says a bit of everything. However, it is worth having a couple of others to show your acting range. On your online actor profile, such as Spotlight, you can have around five or six different shots. Any more than this is too many.

Do I need prints?

Prints are very rarely used as part of the casting process anymore, so you don’t need them to be included in the package. A photographer is likely to set a higher fee if they are included. You can get prints as and when you need them from reproduction companies.

How should I put my portfolio together?

Whether looking at your contact sheet (often up to 200 shots) or looking at a selection of final touched images, don’t be afraid to ask for people’s opinions. They will help you get perspective as it is difficult to view your own shots objectively. Saying this, they are your headshots, you have

to live with them, so make sure you pick the shots that you are happy with. Unless, of course, your agent picks them for you, in which case, as long as you are happy with your agent, your work is done until the next time they need updating.

Choosing shots

You probably only need six or so photos to cover your range. More than that and they may be too similar. Two or three different shots are fine. Remember, a range is a subtle difference in look, not the same look in different tops. A mid-shot (ie from the waist up) is often a useful addition. One or two production stills, if they are good and interesting, can add to the mix nicely. In America it’s standard to have a full body shot which makes sense but that hasn’t kicked off here yet.

There is no exact science in choosing a headshot photographer, nor is there a formula for creating a killer headshot. It is an incredibly subjective process. Different photographers work in different ways and process different styles; what will work for some will not work for others. You can argue about what is in fashion, but a great headshot should always look like you when you walk through the audition room door and show you in your best light. You on a good day. Honest & Engaging. My hope is that www.headshothunter.co.uk will help all performers simplify the process of finding the right photographer for them and achieving great headshots.

 

Headshot Hunter User guide 2017: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BEqCi6XOkB0

Headshot Hunter