“Just the pick-me-up I need” – Jen Banks

By April 11, 2017April 23rd, 2018News


Need a way to break your rhythms and shake off the blues? Two hours with Lee Toomes and a room full of actors at Act Up North is sure to do the trick…

It’s 7.35pm and after a night of poor sleep and a full day’s work, my energy and mood are low. I’m dragging my tired, sorry ass to my Act Up North class. And I’m late. The car park’s full, again, so I’ve had to drive round to Burley Road and dash back Studio 81, where I knock on the window to get someone to let me in.

When I enter, I’m told I’ve just been described as “the giddy one”. Giddy is just about the last thing I’m feeling right now. Knackered, fed-up and anxious about how I’ll do in class tonight is a more accurate description of my emotional state. What I later figure out is that what Donna sees as my ”giddiness” is actually my acute and debilitating anxiety when it comes to getting up and acting – and it pours out of me in just about any way it can.
Thankfully, Lee’s got some tricks up his sleeve to tackle tension and where we hold it when performing. He gets us to do a scene while consciously doing the physical things we usually do unconsciously. So, some deliver every line through gritted teeth, others have to frown throughout their performance, stick their necks out or shift their weight from side to side after delivering each line.

After the ‘freak show’ version of the scene – and believe me, some of these performances look well freaky – we’re told to drop it and do the scene as normal. Of course, when it’s my turn, I get a double whammy – I’m told to frown and shift my weight and that’s a lot to think about. But once I do the scene again normally, I become immediately aware of the frowning and un-scrunch those facial muscles as soon as I sense them becoming tight. I do wave my arms around a bit though – which leads me to the conclusion the nerves have just found a different way out!

Still, it definitely brings an awareness to my performance and a more authentic quality to the performances I see. Others say the felt more connected, more at ease or just plain confused at getting the balance right between keeping their involuntary movements under control and not being too stiff. Aye there’s the rub, that’s certainly something that vexes me. However, the exercise is a real eye opener, for all of us – and quite literally so for Natalia, who has to keep her eyebrows raised throughout her performance.

So, the purpose of the evening’s lesson is to bring our unconscious ‘ticks’ into consciousness in order to eliminate them, leaving us more open. “These things you do as an actor keep you stuck in certain rhythms,” Lee explains, “and this is a way of breaking the rhythm, so that you’re more open to be changed.”

“Acting is being open and flexible enough to change tactics and adapt to what the other actor is giving you. You have an objective as an actor in a scene, but the other actor has an objective too – they’re trying to evoke something in you and you have to react to that.” Lee’s lesson ends with another chewy nugget of acting wisdom. And as I scribble my final notes and snap my exercise book shut, I realise that I don’t feel tired and fed-up anymore. An evening of frowning, gurning and learning has been just the pick-me-up I need…


Only trouble is, I don’t trust myself… so it’s back to school with an important lesson in what stops actors from being great

“It’s not about deciding to deliver your lines with acertain emotion. It’s about putting your focus on the person you’re workingwith, listening line by line and truthfully responding in the moment to how they say their lines.” It’s lessonone of the new term at Act Up North Leeds and, for me, this is the crux oftonight’s instruction from teach, Mr Hunt. Or quite simply, Peter, if you’renot trying to extend a Grange Hill metaphor.

His wisdom sounds so incredibly simple, and it seems to neatlyand concisely encapsulate the art of good acting. But why, oh why, oh why is itso blooming difficult to do? After two hours locked in a room with a lot ofjittering actors and their ‘first night back nerves’ the answer is all tooapparent – anxiety. And lack of trust. Or are they the same thing? I don’tknow. All I know is that I’m shaking like a jelly on a spin dryer when it’s mineand Jo’s turn to perform a scene from Lineof Duty.

We’ve been instructed to rehearse giving particular attentionto the three main things that let actors down in auditions and on set: poor eyecontact, facial tension and standing off centre. So what do I do when I get up there? Decideto deliver my lines with a certain emotion (see top of page for that one), dolots of my trademark gurning, tilt my head, forget my words and grasp for myscript.

Pass the dunce hat! Not even a C+ for effort. Still, thewhole point of the evening is to discover our own ‘nervous ticks’ in a bid toeliminate them. I’m told it’s myself I should be forgetting and not my lines –which is a sign of lack of trust in myself. That old chestnut.

So the solution is to physically grapple with the anxiety. Acouple of classmates get up to hold myself and Jo in place while we haveanother crack at the scene – the idea being that you can’t go throwing yourtension around when you’re rooted to the spot. And it works. It makes me focusand take Jo in a lot more. And I feel (on some lines at least) that I’m doing it – responding in the moment. I’m not theonly one. Time and time again, through the aid of physical restraint, we cansee how people connect with each other, and their performances become genuine.“Strip away the acting,” Yoda, er Peter tells us.

So we’ve come to an acting class to learn how to act bystripping away the acting. Which means not acting is acting. What a head f**k! Yetit makes perfect sense. Now all that remains is to do my lines (write 100 times“I must trust myself, I must trust myself, I must trust myself”), and learn mylines for next week. Until then, I’m off out to play eye contact games in theplayground…

Jennifer Banks