Aimee Pollock AKA Esther Summerson reflects on her time with the Ensemble

Aimee Pollock AKA Esther Summerson reflects on her time with the Ensemble

As I packed my bag on the Sunday following four wonderful performances of Bleak House, I only wished I was moving onto the next city, the next show… I was just starting to find my rhythm and the technicalities of the show were feeling embodied and I just wanted to keep going, I wasn’t ready for it to end! Although, being home, I have been able to reflect on what was a truly, brilliant experience.

Before Bleak House began, I spoke with a friend and mentioned I would be playing Esther Summerson, to which he replied, ‘oh god, she’s so pathetic and weak.’ Unfazed by this, I went into rehearsals, ready to work, with an open mind. Week one was very much about discovery and play, making bold choices, even if they were wrong, it was a time to make mistakes and try things out. During week two, the set arrived and it was like visually seeing the brilliant minds of David and Zoe slot together. The scaffolding which Zoe had designed provided beautiful frames for which David edited our visceral, beautiful melodrama. Melodrama and performing on scaffolding were two very new things for me, but it’s amazing how quickly the body adapts and David soon had us swinging upside down and hanging off the sides. Marvellous- a playground for adults!

Throughout the entire process I had my little notebook permanently attached to my hip, because David is always dropping nuggets of information that I wanted to remember. Something that particularly struck me, was after the dress rehearsal, he said that “in melodrama the emotion should not overwhelm you. It should be for the audience. If you weep too much, the audience won’t and you do not want to deprive them of that.” I needed to be reminded of this, as I have never played a character so like myself before. I feared I would get caught up in the characters emotion when reliving an experience similar to my own. David also often spoke about an actors need to be liked. Liked by their director, liked by each other and most importantly, liked by the audience (although we tend not to admit this). Esther is someone who craves love and desperately wants to be liked because she has never felt worthy of it. She is also openly fragile, naïve, indecisive, and melancholic; the parts of me that I try to keep hidden. Not your typical traits for a heroine, but to me that is what makes her special. Esther finds it hard to see herself as beautiful, especially next to her beloved Ada. As I delve further into this competitive world, full of beautiful actresses where their outer self is so often considered before their inner, it can be hard not to compare yourself. (Especially when you are the girl who leaves class like you’ve just stepped out of the shower because you sweat that much – thank you David!) But just like Esther, I have learnt to accept myself in all my forms and realise my own self-worth. It helps when you are surrounded by a generous, passionate, thoughtful cast of people, whom for a short time become your family, daily you are reminded that you belong, and that everybody’s unique in their own way. I see so much of my seventeen-year-old self in Esther and even though we are centuries apart, one being fictional, the other being real (I think) we are connected through a shared journey to discover oneself, which I’m sure everyone can relate to.

I learnt that in melodrama there are moments when the actor has complete power over the audience. As the narrator, I got to watch the audience gasp as Tulkinghorn rolled like a snake from the top of the scaffolding to bottom, hold back tears as poor, little Jo died and laugh as Madame Krooke self-combusted. The audience were taken on a roller coaster of emotions, never knowing what was going to happen next and constantly being shifted from one emotion to the other. Storytelling is a powerful art form and the theatre is a special place to connect people from all walks of life. I felt this during the last performance when I delivered my final line; “if she is a girl, we shall call her…”, and someone whispered “Esther” just before I did. It was an utterly magical moment. I felt the audience had been with us all along.

Bleak House may be over, but there is still work to be done. More voice work, more physical training, and more learning – which I realised with David, is at the heart of everything he does. Being a part of the David Glass Ensemble was a gift and I got to experience first-hand, not only how David works but how he is providing people with opportunities that can often be hard to be to come by. He is bringing together artists from all cultures and backgrounds… I met beautiful the Italian ‘Brides’ and lovely ladies from China.
After watching the performance, my friend told me he was wrong about Esther. As for me, I can only hope to meet her again in the future…
Thank you, David, Gavin, Zoe, Natalie, Hester, Robert, Kerry and the entire cast of Bleak House for an incredible experience I shall never forget!

 

Photograph curtesy of Robert Golden

Melodrama in Bleak House by Simon Gleave (Tulkinghorn)

Melodrama in Bleak House by Simon Gleave (Tulkinghorn)

Once we received our playground: the scaffolding that comprises Bleak House, it suddenly felt like being in cinematic frames, both individually and collectively. A two-tiered structure that is both stable and skeletal, modern and period, monumental and fragmented. The opportunity for counterpoint and complex ensemble imagery became enormous. At the top it is precarious and the act of balance (together with the anxiety it induced) is equally to the triumph of scaling those heights. In a similar sense to circus’ capacity to impress simply because of the scale of its physical feats – people climbing and falling, the empty air performers spread into – here, the metaphor is physicalised on the social and symbolic level of Dickens’ story. Tulkinghorn becomes like a spider or panther scaling the frame of these poor people’s circumstances, and the scaffold becomes like the cage of the law itself.

Melodrama is an underused, misunderstood term, I’ve come to realise. First of all, it’s all around us (I watched 4 films last week which were all undoubtedly melodramas); secondly, as a culture we’ve derisively banished the original form to victorian theatre and early cinema as a sentimental, exaggerated, false style. Psychological realism has replaced the art of gesture with the art of neuroses or jaw tension.

What I studied at Lecoq were the basic principles of devising melodrama: that which moves us to tears, heightened emotion to a point where it could be sung, sacrifice for the sake of another, devastating departure and a return many years down the line, the elastic relationships which connect all families and communities, and the great social dark matter (pollution, bureaucracy, government control, the law) which threatens the personal ties of a community. All of this seen through the eyes of a narrator who is both inside and outside the action, moving from naivety to experience.

Evidently, all of these elements are in Bleak House (almost to an extent where it’s as if the principles of Lecoq’s pedagogy draws water directly from Dickens). Since the melodrama is so strong, one imagines it would be fairly simple (even sensible) to serve the story in terms of psychological realism… it’s what the BBC would do. Instead, we are physically and emotionally engaged in discovering the style of melodrama as it exists (or existed) formally, something which takes a different time scale and which is often danced. Much of our studio research has been in the language of gesture, conveying our emotional lives on the scale of the melodramatic stage or silent Gothic cinema.

Photograph by Robert Golden.

Gavin’s blog on life in Chengdu

Gavin’s blog on life in Chengdu

With two and a half months left before I return to the UK to work alongside David on Bleak House, I have become reflective of my time spent here on behalf of the Ensemble. Since arriving in Chengdu over 3 months ago, the staff at Marphy’s Play House and Marphy herself have been the most welcoming, warming and fun group of what I can now call friends. I have gained a family that I know I could return to anytime, and that is something quite special, humbling and unexpected of my time here.

Since March, I have been devising an adaptation of the Brothers Grimm, Hansel and Gretel. This has been a project I have been working on with the other teachers at the Play House. The aim is that from the end of this month they will be touring it around schools here in Chengdu, as well as conducting workshops to aid the children’s learning. These teachers have little experience in devising, so it goes without saying that this was a difficult task- yet they have all grown in confidence and have become positive risk takers. They understand that the story and the telling of it is the most important. Their skills are developing weekly and their dedication to their work is inspirational.

This week the older children I teach (9-11 year olds) got to perform Halibu, a story about the Mongolian nomads. Having only had 12 weeks and under 40 hours with them, it is phenomenal what they have achieved. When I started with this class, one of the children didn’t even want to perform! His (as well as everyone’s) progress has been huge, and he got up on stage and performed amazingly! His mum even said to me afterwards, “drama has helped him so much, he’s much more confident and positive now thanks to drama class”. Hearing that and seeing this growth myself has been a highlight of my time here so far.

I now move my attention to the 6-8 year olds performance of The Journey to the West and summer camp, whilst continuing my weekly classes at the weekends. It’s an understatement to say I’m busy – however as much as I am seeing others learn and develop, I too can feel a development in myself. I always thought I was a good listener, but my time here so far has taught me how to REALLY listen. How to listen to others needs and learning abilities, listen to cultural differences and understand how this effects our creative outlet and communication. I’ve learnt how constricted we are by TIME. Learning, development, growth, understanding, exploration and progress all takes time. When we teach or direct, time is our enemy – there is never enough of it!

However, what I now fully understand is that creativity is endless, as are our dreams. There is never a finished piece or project because there is no bottom or top to it. Creativity is continuous, creativity has no boundaries – that is why stories are retold, because it is different every time. When my time here comes to an end, I will be happy to have had my share of the story at Marphy’s Play House, and I will continue to stay in touch and watch on as the story and adventure continues to unfold here.

In light of the recent electoral results, the future is uncertain and we have witnessed many other crazy political movements, and not just in our own country. As a young artist I feel empowered to be part off the Ensemble, I feel as if my voice can be heard. But so can everyones, if you are feeling oppressed, frustrated or angry – get together, create art and theatre to express, if nothing else it will give you a voice! We are stronger together than apart!

– By Gavin Richards