Can mindfulness help improve your actor training?

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Can mindfulness help improve your actor training?

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Drama schools have caught on to the benefits of making mindfulness a part of actor training. Samantha Marsden talks to the drama leaders including it in the curriculum and a teacher from Buddhist monastery Plum Village

Mindfulness and actor training have a lot in common. They both help students to become fully aware of their breath, mind and body. They also train students to be more in tune with other people, their surroundings, objects and society as a whole. Some drama schools include mindfulness as part of their core acting curriculum, others offer it as an elective subject, and some provide mindfulness teaching as part of their student well-being programmes. Senior figures at leading drama schools, as well as Sister Hien Nghiêm from Europe’s largest Buddhist monastery, Plum Village, reveal how important mindfulness can be for performers.

Mindfulness helps the actor stay present and connected
Two years ago, ALRA made mindfulness a part of its acting curriculum for all BA, MA and foundation students at both its South and North campuses. Jayne Courtney, BA acting course leader at ALRA North, says that by “using guided meditation, students are considering their openness to experience and their awareness in the moment”. This, she says, “has encouraged a dialogue in workshops and rehearsals about staying present and connected during scene work, yet an acceptance that they need to release themselves from such a connection after the moment has passed”.

Mindfulness strengthens resilience and creativity
At RADA, mindfulness techniques are a part of actor training and student well-being. Psychotherapist Barry Smale runs sessions with RADA’s acting students and faculty on resilience and creativity, using mindfulness and meditation techniques. He says: “Mindfulness is helpful to anyone. It helps you to become more aware of your own brain’s thinking processes and to be released from spirals of negative thoughts. This can be particularly helpful for actors, who are under a lot of scrutiny in their profession and may struggle to separate the work they produce – and any assessment or criticism of it – from who they are as people. Some of the latest neuroscience research shows how brains operate in states of creativity. We can use this understanding in two areas: by improving the brain’s creative abilities, enabling you to conceptualise characters and situations more freely; and by improving your ability to spontaneously manifest this through language and movement.”

Mindfulness can be particularly helpful for actors, who are under a lot of scrutiny in their profession and may struggle to separate the work they produce from who they are as people

Mindfulness trains you to listen fully
Anna McNamara, director of learning and teaching at Guildford School of Acting, says: “At GSA, [acting tutor] Ian Ricketts talks of the importance of returning to the state of the child, where we are able to really listen to the natural world and see and know the human interactions within it, without cynicism and judgement of self and others. The message is simple – if we are not connected to our own stories and to those of others, we are unable to articulate those narratives. But we cannot connect until we find stillness and, from there, the ability to really listen. This is a technical skill for the actor, which requires personal stillness and a quietening. This takes time, patience and practice. The joyfulness is that both the process and the practice are mindfulness in action.”

With mindfulness comes authenticity
Plum Village, which was founded by Zen master Thích Nhat Hanh, operates mindfulness practice centres around the world. Sister Hien Nghiêm, from Plum Village in France, who has a background in theatre, says that “for an actor, the most powerful benefit of developing a personal practice of mindfulness is that mindfulness offers us a chance to live authentically, as our true selves, without artifice. When we eat, we eat; when we sit, we sit; when we shower, we shower; when we go to the toilet, we go to the toilet. All of these simple acts are part of life, and each of them can be made deeper, more profound, more real, with the energy of mindfulness. We encounter ourselves just as we are, and we accept and embrace whatever is going on, with gentle awareness and compassion, without trying to change or force it in any way.”

Mindfulness trains you to access the presence an actor often seeks
Daniel Bradford, head of acting at Mindful Acting, says: “ ‘Being ‘present’, ‘in the moment’, ‘in the zone’, in ‘flow’, or ‘losing oneself’, no matter what terminology one might prefer or what acting methodology one follows, is widely accepted and that this state of being fully ‘in the moment’ or present is the holy grail of any acting pursuit. Yet, achieving this experience in most actors seems to be erratic at best. The more we seem to seek it, the more elusive it becomes, being overshadowed instead by the yearning for the experience itself. In life, we suffer not because of what we experience, but because we are constantly in opposition to our experience: trying to make pleasant states remain, and unpleasant states go away. Our acting itself also suffers from the same flawed strategy. By learning to truly be with our experience – fully, unconditionally, non-judgementally – we are finally able to reliably access this presence we so often seek but so rarely find.”

Mindfulness as an anchor
There are different schools of thought when it comes to mindfulness, but one aspect that all branches agree on is the awareness of breath. Courtney says: “We use the re-connection to the breath as an anchor to safety and release. The breath allows the mind to settle and focus. In mindfulness work we stay as free as possible from judgement, using the attention to body and breath to explore what is with us at that moment.”

Mindfulness helps you become self-aware and objective
At Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts, head of acting Will Hammond says: “We utilise mindfulness as we have found this practice improves the actor’s quality of observation, and contributes to the development of self-awareness and objectivity. In scene work, it can allow for the actor’s responsiveness and empathy, providing an ability for the actor to be fully present in the moment and reactive to their imagined environment and scene partners.”

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