Acting,  Musings

The Rehearsal Room – evolving the process

Students at the May 2013 Audition Technique workshop with Alison Telford at The Rehearsal Room (photo courtesy of Richard Sarell)

Last week I wrote about my experiences working with the Howard Fine Acting Studio in Australia and this week I’d like to acknowledge the other influence on my life as an actor here in Melbourne – Richard Sarell at The Rehearsal Room.

Richard Sarell (Photo courtesy The Rehearsal Room)
Richard Sarell (Photo courtesy The Rehearsal Room)

I met Richard back in 2005 when an actor friend suggested I look into the classes he was running to get me back into the swing of acting training.

I hadn’t taken ongoing acting classes since graduating from the Actors’ Institute, London in 1997, and although I had done the odd workshop, I was still looking for a teacher in Melbourne that I could relate to and who would stretch me as a performer.

When choosing acting teachers, my best advice is: find someone who has credible experience, will challenge you to do better, yet support you in your learning process and not make you feel like you’re failing when you “get it wrong”.  You’re supposed to “get it wrong” when taking classes – that’s what classes are for and how you learn!  Most importantly – find a teacher who doesn’t attempt to get into your head and rummage around on a psychological level – that is not the job of the acting teacher, that’s the job of a therapist.  Richard ticked all these boxes and also had another point of difference – he was a director.

Richard comes to teaching from a long and successful television directing career, beginning with the iconic Australian series “Bellbird” in the 1970’s, through to “A Country Practice”, “Neighbours”, “Embassy”, “MDA”, “Home & Away”, “Shortland Street”, “Water Rats”, “Blue Heelers” and “All Saints” – to name just a few.

He has directed episodic and one-off television programs in drama, comedy and factual both here and in New Zealand and did so for over twenty five years.  He has directed actors to Emmy and AFI-nominated and winning performances and brings his invaluable experience and perspective as someone who is used to looking through the lens, to the process of teaching the acting craft.

Richard has also taught directing and acting at Victorian College of the Arts (VCA), The Australian Film, Television & Radio School (AFTRS), National Theatre Drama School, Australian College of Performing Arts and Ballarat University before opening The Rehearsal Room doors in 2001.

And he’s a lovely, honest, funny and smart person to boot.

I began working with Richard and found his techniques to be truly revolutionary in regards to applying Stanislavski to the screen.  Sure, he used different terminology to what I was used to, but once I got my head around the language, I realised that he had simplified the process for the immediacy of screen work, yet retained the essence of what Stanislavski was talking about – and it worked.

Over the years, I  moved onto the Advanced classes, then Masterclasses and then the one week Summer Intensive, and each time I noticed something quite extraordinary – as time went on, The Rehearsal Room process moved on as well.  This wasn’t a set of techniques that remained static and immovable – it was evolving.  New ideas would come up in class and be explored – some worked, some didn’t, but each experience added to the conversation about “what was the story” and every now and again, the new discoveries that gelled and fitted with the essential Rehearsal Room process would then be incorporated into the work.

It was a fascinating process, and totally in line with what Stanislavski had, himself said: “Create your own method. Don’t depend slavishly on mine. Make up something that will work for you! But keep breaking traditions, I beg you.”

I stepped away from ongoing classes for a time as life got in the way (as life can do), but remained in contact with Richard and, when able took his industry Audition Workshops to keep up with what he was teaching – something I continue to do.

Which brings me to the next point on why I find The Rehearsal Room so valuable.   There are many places in Melbourne now who offer Audition Workshops where you prepare a scene, come into the venue on the day and “audition” for current Casting Directors.  I can think of at least five places offering this kind of workshop off the top of my head.  But what sets The Rehearsal Room’s workshops apart is the way they are run.

At the moment I am participating in the current round of Audition Workshops with The Rehearsal Room for May.  Last Saturday we had the pleasure of working with Alison Telford (ABC Casting Director) and this coming Saturday we will work with Andrew Thompson (Casting Director for the Channel 7 series “Winners & Losers”), which I am also very much looking forward to.

The process can begin one of three ways (depending on Richard’s availability) – we get our scenes, prepare them ourselves and turn up to the actual workshop to participate, or we can undertake two group classes in the lead up to the workshop with Richard to prepare with his guidance, or we can book for private sessions with Richard to work one on one before the actual workshop.

I have worked using the group sessions before the workshop with Richard (which I always recommend to people if they are new to the biz or returning after a long break or new to The Rehearsal Room process) and what I do now, which is the self-preparation version.

But here is where The Rehearsal Room audition workshops begin to move beyond other places who offer similar fare.  We work with the Casting Director one on one with a live feed playing in the waiting area, which is always fantastic as it replicates the audition situation for the actor in the room, but allows the rest of us to watch the process and observe.  Working this way, not only do we get the benefit of the Casting Directors’ direct feedback – I have been given some very pertinent and really useful feedback from Casting Directors in these sessions, which is invaluable – but additionally, though watching other actors work via the live feed, we get the chance to observe and learn from their sessions as well.

But then, and this is the major point of difference to other places, once that element is done, each actor then gets one-on-one time with Richard in another room reviewing the tape of the work we did in the room with the Casting Director, which gives us an understanding of what a Director sees when reviewing tapes of auditions – but also the benefit of being able to discuss the work with an experienced director and teacher and gain more clarity on what worked on screen, what didn’t and why.

And it’s done with great care, honesty, generosity and humour and is so helpful towards getting the audition process clear and working out what works and what doesn’t for you as an actor, but also as a person in that situation.  This is SUCH good value for money – as you are actually paying to be guided and taught with a consistent methodology that relates directly to improving audition and screen technique, rather than just paying to experience an audition situation and get access to Casting Directors.

And every time I do these workshops, I learn.  It doesn’t matter how much or how little experience you have, there is always something to take away that will improve your work in the audition room.  The Q&A sessions with each Casting Director that take place before and after the workshop are always informative and Richard’s experienced input as a director (who has worked with many of these Casting Directors professionally) is invaluable.  Additionally, my craft keeps evolving and deepening, and it is always great to get in a room in a simulated “real world” situation and see where I currently stand – knowing that I am supported and in safe hands and that I will have an experienced director and teacher to talk things through with almost immediately afterwards.

Over the years, Richard has moved from being a teacher to a good friend and I have such respect and love for him as a professional mentor, but also as a person.  I feel very blessed to have people such as Richard and Howard in my life, as well as my wonderful teachers at drama school, way back when, who have helped me to grow and learn and, quite simply, continue to evolve and improve to be a better actor.

If you want to know more about all The Rehearsal Room classes on offer, click here.