Evelyn Roberts & Duncan Ross share their experience of working on a National Theatre project

Evelyn and Duncan both graduated from ALRA’s MA Post Graduate course at ALRA North and have been cast in the company of the National Theatre UK tour of Macbeth.

‘Directed by National Theatre Artistic Director Rufus Norris (Cabaret, London Road) and designed by Rae Smith (War Horse, This House), this new production propels Shakespeare’s classic title into a post-apocalyptic world of anarchy and uncertainty.’ (www.nationaltheatre.org.uk)

The tour opened at The Lowry in Salford in September, a regular showcase venue for ALRA, and the tour is visiting 17 other venues across the UK until March 2019.

We had the chance to catch up with them both as the tour opened to find out what it’s like to be working on a National Theatre project.

ALRA: Firstly, it’s so exciting to see you opening on a prestigious tour so close to ALRA North. What’s it like to be working on this atmospheric production?

evelyn robertsEvelyn: I’m still pinching myself. The scale of this production is like nothing I’ve done before so I’m often stood on stage feeling wonder-struck, surrounded by these brilliant actors and the epic set. It’s incredible getting into a venue and seeing everything coming together.

The lighting, sound composition and haze completely transform the work we’ve been doing in rehearsals.

Duncan: It’s extraordinarily exciting to be part of the National Theatre on any level but to be caretakers of Shakespeare’s Macbeth on a tour with the NT that has been specifically tailored to visit the regions of the U.K. feels particularly special. 

ALRA: Can you tell us about your auditions for the tour and what you prepared in advance?

Evelyn: I had an initial audition with Sam Stevenson (Casting Director for NT) and Liz Stevenson (Associate Director) where I came prepared with some sections of text from the Weird Sisters.

The recall consisted of text work with Rufus Norris followed by some movement work with Cydney Uffindell-Phillips and then a group fitness session with Hauk Pattison (who would be the guy responsible for training the Weird Sisters in the art of Chinese Pole). It was in June during the hot spell so I came out proper sweaty.

duncan rossDuncan: Firstly as an actor get used to having limited time to prepare. In my experience since graduating actors don’t have the luxury of ‘time’ – in any business time is money!

I read the play as many times as possible. I studied Macbeth at ALRA and knew it quite well. However, this version is different with character changes and quite distinctive cuts - never take anything for granted!

I was told to be familiar with four scenes, two each for both King Duncan and the Porter. I read the scenes several times and then ‘translated’ anything until I completely understood what was being said and why.

I researched as much information about Duncan and the Porter as possible using the script for given circumstances - Shakespeare is extremely good at giving you information. I was given a note to change my approach during a re-read of the Porter’s knocking scene.

I never forgot Chris Hill’s comment; ‘if you’re not sure what to do when given a note to change something, just do it differently’. Thanks Chris. Good advice!

ALRA: What was the rehearsal process like and how long was it?

Evelyn: For me the full rehearsal period was seven weeks; the first two were dedicated solely to training on the Chinese Poles. The rest of the cast joined on the third week. The rehearsal process was incredible. There were so many things going on at once to make sure we covered everything in as much detail as possible.

There’d be vocal sessions going on in one room, understudy rehearsals going on in another and movement work in the next room. It was mind boggling to think the production team had to work out where every single member of the 19-strong cast was at any given moment.

Duncan: We spent five weeks rehearsing in London at Greenwich followed by a long and tiring tech week in Manchester - keep fit and healthy! Six weeks of rehearsals is a luxury by any standards (four is the norm) and, unsurprisingly, the rehearsal process is exactly the same as drama school!

We only spent a couple of days of table work before we were on our feet and in full flow. We were encouraged to make ‘offers’ to the director our fellow actors. I found the rehearsal process particularly enjoyable, for me it’s a time to play, explore and be bold.

ALRA: What are you learning from this experience and from the other members of the company and the director, Rufus Norris?

Evelyn: I’m learning to be bold and adjust the size of my performance accordingly depending on the scale of the production. The performance I would give in a studio theatre is very different to the performance I need to give for a venue as big as The Lowry.

Duncan: I’m learning so much from everyone. I’m just soaking in everything from anyone who tells me something new. The one thing that stands out for me is everyone’s preparedness to fail and have fun doing so, and being allowed to fail is a strength of the cast and the director - it’s how we create fantastic stuff!

ALRA: Macbeth is a very well-known play but some of the audience on your tour may be coming to the theatre for the first time - with a school trip for example. Can you tell us a little bit about your roles and how you’ve approached them?

Evelyn: I’m playing one of the witches and also Macduff’s son. I’ve approached these roles slightly differently. With the witch I discovered a movement and physical energy first, followed by a vocal quality and then created a backstory that married the two up.

Macduff’s son was far less about movement and voice and focused more on nurturing his strong bond to his mother and clarifying the intention behind every word he says. I really listen to what is being said to him. That way his thoughts and retorts feel more alive and organic.

Duncan: That’s a hugely relevant question as the play has been assembled with accessibility for a new generation in mind. Visually the play is attempting to convey a world which might appear more relevant to a younger audience whilst still appealing to traditionalists. It’s a difficult line to walk. The language is still Shakespeare. Hopefully the visual accompaniment of a dramatic set with modern costume will convey the story even if some of the language may be challenging for first-timers.

With this in mind, in all my roles from Ensemble to understudying King Duncan, Siward, Porter and Third Murderer, I have attempted to bring to life to the language and colour it for a ‘first time‘ audience - and whilst they may not remember every line, if I can embody the language and move on stage in a way that will communicate the story then hopefully they’ll come back for more!

ALRA: When working on a classic text in so many different venues, what specific aspects of your ALRA training are you using?

Evelyn: The vocal warm-ups I learnt at ALRA are still part of my warm-up routine now. With some seven-show weeks and lots of travelling it’s easy for your voice to be affected so a good warm-up is a must.

Duncan: Some of these venues are huge. I stood as far back and as high up as possible at the Lowry/Lyric Theatre during rehearsals - I couldn’t even see who was speaking! It’s that far away you can’t even see actor’s mouths move – and as storytellers this is more than important!

With this in mind vocal work and movement have been direct imports from my ALRA training. Even with microphones, working with vocal support and diction is crucial and combine this with body language and appropriate movement - we have another mode of communication for the audience.

ALRA: What techniques will you use to keep the performance fresh as you tour the UK? And, how will you sustain yourself while you’re away from home? Do you have a routine to keep you focused?

Evelyn: Luckily, the physicality of Chinese pole work will mean that there is always progress to be made so I can keep learning and adding more moves to my repertoire that I can then utilise and experiment with in performance to keep my part from going stale.

I don’t have a routine but I do try to eat well and get as much sleep as possible. Your body is your tool and you need to look after it.

Duncan: For me keeping the performance fresh happens automatically. I’m constantly exploring on stage. Even micro changes can have an impact and that keeps things interesting and exciting for me and, hopefully, the audience.

I never forget that every show is being seen by a new audience and the responsibility to ‘entertain’ paying customers is a primary function. Being away from home will be a challenge but I’ll get in to a routine of working out, eating healthily and being professional at work (although, interestingly, I’ve never seen acting as work!).

Focus for me is about being professional and that’s the routine. It’s about being on time, it’s about being responsible and reliable.

ALRA: Since you graduated from ALRA, what else have you worked on?

Evelyn: I’ve worked mainly in theatre since graduating and channeled a lot of my energy into making my own work with the theatre company that I set up as part of my final module at ALRA; ‘People Zoo Productions’.

Duncan: I’ve done a handful of commercials and auditioned for a couple of films. Again in my experience auditions are last minute, so prepare well. Self-tapes are increasingly popular with casting agents. I’ve also done a couple of corporate role-playing jobs which are fun and extremely well paid!

ALRA: What are your fondest memories of your training at ALRA?

Evelyn: My favourite period of training at ALRA was when we were lucky enough to have Elizabeth Newman directing us in Mother Courage and Her Children. My confidence in myself had been at rock bottom and the whole rehearsal experience taught me to trust myself, to work hard and stop comparing myself to others.

Duncan: Movement classes. It’s amazing what I learned about communicating without speaking. I also found great pleasure working on Shakespeare. I also think some of the most rewarding experiences were working with industry professionals - actors and directors who brought a real edge to our learning experience.

ALRA: Finally, what advice would you give to prospective students who are auditioning for drama school?

Evelyn: Spend time researching the different schools and their different specialisations. Check the course structures and make sure the syllabus incorporates the modules that you want to do. If there are short courses or Summer courses you can try out, these are a great way to find out if a school is for you.

Duncan: Firstly be yourself. Secondly, BE YOURSELF. I know it’s a cliché but it really is true. Your version of a speech is far more interesting than your version of Mark Rylance or Maxine Peake. Thirdly never, ever, ever give up. It’s taken me fifty three years to get here and I ain’t stopping any time soon!

ALRA: Thanks so much for your time and we wish you both the very best for this exciting production and all of your future projects! (Ticket link here.)

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